Grief Remembers: Shadowing the Bear

Together, while others dozed in tents, three of us shadowed a bear.

This is not about hospice.

Except that it is.

In part, this is a remembrance of Richard—his real name, because I wish to honor his memory—who died following an accident in Mexico with college friends.

I will never forget visiting his parents soon after they heard the worst news of their lives.

Richard and his friends were around twenty, visiting Mexico for fun in the sun. They were kids. They were serious students. All happily lived in the moment, excited or nervous or both about their futures. Then came the accident. The one with the most injuries in the vehicular collision was Richard. But they all walked away, quickly making a decision that may or may not have been the right one. And please, read the truth of those words: they may or may not have made a good decision. Hindsight is cruel. Second-guessing sours even our most reasonable thoughts.

Should they have gone to a hospital immediately after the accident?

Should they have hurried to get across the border to the United States?

Who knows? Who knows?

Richard died, hours after the accident, in the United States. He was a bright kid in high school that got into one of the best universities. He had achieved Eagle Scout. He was handsome and humble, athletic and sensitive, and was probably already accumulating—like you and me—the faults and regrets that go with leading a “normal life.”

He is the centerpiece to one of my (many) favorite backpacking tales. On a church youth trip to the Sierra, he’d told me he hoped to see a bear. One accommodated us, prowling our high mountain camp in the gray before dawn. I heard the snuffling, shuffling black bear as it passed my tent. Bears never worry about being quiet! Probably disappointed because we’d properly stored our food, the bear ambled away. I awoke Richard in his tent and we also went to another tent to roust his girlfriend. The three of us followed the camp’s visitor . . . at a safe distance! With the sun cresting the horizon, we trailed the bear until—like a practiced magician—it vanished into the forest.


Richard couldn’t stop smiling.

+      +      +

Two or three years after that backpack, and a day or two after his death, I went to see his parents.

Soon, I’d be leaving that church, moving to a new community to serve another congregation.

Richard’s parents were good people. Nice, church-going, Bible-believing, God-loving, Jesus-following, neighborly folks. They gave away their time and money to good causes. If, as their pastor, I asked them to help with a committee or activity, they might say a yes or a no, but their response was always thoughtful. They worked hard. They did a good job of raising their kids, including their only son.

I entered their home.

They were hollowed-out humans. Both, as we talked and prayed and shared in their living room, were wrecks. They didn’t cry, though their faces showed evidence of a million tears. Both were late middle age—whatever that is—and appeared to be a thousand years old . . . shriveled, gray, and wasting away. Their only boy had died. Their future had died. Their flesh and blood would be buried in the dirt. In a heartbeat, they’d trade their lives for his.

Maybe it was because I had good mentors in ministry. Maybe it was because I was stunned by how they looked. Maybe it was because, in all the odd ways God seems to nudge me, I sensed some Holy whisper to just shut up. I said, you see, nearly nothing.

There are terrible, fearsome temptations to babble in these awful, anguished times.

When a door closes, God opens a window.

It’s usually darkest before the light.

Your child is in a better place.

At least you have memories.

This must be God’s plan.

There can be no explaining some deaths. There can be no understanding or comforting. Regardless of beliefs, of the promises of heaven’s pearly gates, of the confidence in reincarnation, of the assurances of Nirvana, or a life of bliss based on the new age grasp of this moment, there are deaths that shatter us.

Platitudes and clichés become daggers piercing souls.

All I could do was be with Richard’s parents, saying as little as I could, feebly trying not to add to their deepening misery.

This I’ve done since: sometimes I tell Richard’s story, sharing the tiny, precious pearl-like part that I experienced for a handful of mountain moments. I hope you, whomever reads this, can imagine Richard eager and happy in the fresh light of an alpine morning. Together, while others dozed in tents, three of us shadowed a bear.

And I got to see Richard smile. Wide and wonderful, alive and exuberant, a boy becoming a man.

In truth, I hardly knew him. I was one of many in Richard’s too short life. But I grieve him. And I couldn’t and still can’t imagine how his parents could make it through the day.

Grief, perhaps muted but still sharp-edged, lasts a lifetime with certain deaths.

And with some deaths, be careful with the words spoken to the ones grieving. But be bold in continuing to share the stories of the one who lived, and who lives forever in the hearts of the living.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. This was lovely. Thank you. I had an acquaintance whose passing stung and burned and continues to remind me about how words can change everything. When I visit people in crisis or after some one has died I remember Peter and measure my words and actions based on how I felt.

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