Compassionate Friends

Last night was a special evening. I was invited to speak at the annual Christmas Candle Lighting for the Owatonna chapter of The Compassionate Friends. The Compassionate Friends is an organization that supports family members after a child dies. The Owatonna chapter hosts a monthly meeting and several special events each year. Below is the text of the talk. 

Those gathered comprised an incredible group of people who have all experienced such deep loss. It was beautiful to witness the way they supported one another - and made space to remember the children, grandchildren, and siblings that have died. But it was also deeply sad to imagine all those incredible lives who have been cut short. Seeing their photos and hearing their names was holy and sacred - and a meaningful way for families to process. 

Compassionate Friends
Candle Lighting
December 8, 2014

A special thanks for the invitation to be here with you all this evening – on such a meaningful night of the year. Tonight is an annual opportunity to connect, to grieve, to process, to be encouraged, to remember and most of all – a place to come and be fully accepted just as we are in the midst of the Christmas season.  

In the next 15 minutes or so, I’ll share some quotes, some poetry, and Scripture…all with the hope that these words might contribute another thread to the beautiful quilt that each of you have already patched together: a quilt stitched with stories of loss, hope, comfort, and community.

Paul Tillich lived from 1886-1965. He was a philosopher and a pastor and a theologian….he knew a lot about a lot of things. But one of his most powerful statements is a simple truth with profound meaning.

He said, “The first duty of love is to listen.”

The first duty of love is to listen.

You are a community of people who deeply understand what Tillich means. In the complexities of life and loss and grief – when little else makes sense – we find comfort in the acceptance of one another. During the Christmas season, we are sometimes consumed with the gifting of presents (p-r-e-s-e-n-t-s) in the form of objects and gift cards and money….we are reminded tonight that the most sincere gift we can share with one another is our emotional, spiritual, and physical presence (p-r-e-s-e-n-c-e). Our listening. Our acceptance. This is the best gift we can give to one another. 

Whether you come to every Compassionate Friends meeting or not – you are all compassionate friends. You are learning to be patient with yourself and others. You are learning to be tolerant and accepting of the way one another processes. This is a space free of judgment. I want to say thank you for your commitment to those principles. This kind of environment not only impacts individual lives – it contributes to the shaping of a more peaceful, loving world.

We breathe deep tonight. We breathe in that acceptance. That love. We have a space to be AS WE ARE. Free to laugh. Free to cry. Free to remember our loved ones. Feel to feel what we feel without need to explain or apologize.  

Kim and Roger shared with me that tonight is a night of hope. It would be convenient if we could pick up a gallon of hope at the grocery store. If it were something we could order and have delivered like a pizza. But hope doesn’t work that way. Instead, it often comes through the honest acknowledgment that sometimes life hurts more than we ever dreamed possible. But that somehow – flowers keep blooming and the sun keeps rising and setting – and somehow we continue eating and sleeping and moving. And somehow - in this ongoing movement of life - there is hope. 

You each embody hope. You are hope in the flesh. You reveal for one another that hope is possible.

Each person in this space is on a unique journey. A journey that is long and multi-layered.  Sometimes, with Christmas, comes intensified emotions. Rituals like today’s provide concrete opportunities to be just as we are. And to remember and name the ones we miss so deeply. 

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. She is a woman who has experienced much – joy and sorrow and everything in between. She wrote a poem called Wild Geese. It’s about community – and how we don’t have to do anything to earn one another’s acceptance.  Our only assignment is to love. It’s a poem about about despair and loss. And how the world keeps turning.  It’s a poem about hope.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things. 

I used to think the Bible was a book of answers. And when trying times came, I would search and search for the perfect verse. Sometimes I would find that perfect verse. Usually, I didn’t. But over time – in serving as a pastor and in my own journey – I have come to see the Bible less as an answer book and more as a family scrapbook. Full of raw emotion and expression. And instead of answers – I find it provides stories. This has become a comfort to me – that we have a tool full of stories about people who experienced the full range of human emotions.

Mary is one such individual. Mary the mother of Jesus. Advent is a good time to ponder Mary’s life. In her journey – as a wife and daughter and mother – Mary experienced it all: grief and loss and hope. The grief Mary felt in her journey wasn’t only at the point of Jesus’ death. There was likely also a certain among of processing and grief before he was even born. Mary certainly had a vision for what her life would be like – and then an angel shows up and tells her that it’s going to be quite different than she had imagined. In chapter 1, verses 26-37, the angel tells Mary the news. Unwed – she’s going to have a baby. It will be the Son of God. It will bring great joy to the people. After the angel’s words, we have verse 38: “Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

I love Mary’s response. Her readiness. Her understanding. But I also imagine that there was a pause between verses 37 and 38.  Between the angel’s words and Mary’s response. The Bible condenses stories. But there is a space between verses 37 and 38. 

And for those experiencing grief, you know well that space. Because you live in it every day. Between reality and our response to reality. Between the moment when we find out our whole life is going to be different than we imagined – and the way in which we respond. There’s a pause there. A long pause.

For Mary – that space between verses 37 and 38 – it was a pause where she got to grieve the life she had imagined. And accept and embrace the life that was ahead. And the first thing Mary does is visit her relative, Elizabeth. Looking for community. And “home” – a refuge. Compassionate Friends is a place for community. A place to process the pause. Mary’s story gives us hope.

Spoken blessings are a powerful gift we can offer to one another. They have a long history. Often part of worship services but can be used anytime. Kathleen Bonanno is a poet and has written a beautiful blessing called Lost in the Woods: A Blessing. The depth and the meaning of this blessing is accentuated with the background information that Kathleen is a person who deeply understands the grief and loss of losing a child. Her daughter was killed by her ex-boyfriend shortly after she completed nursing school. Kathleen has continued on in her outstanding poetry…and a glimmer of hope shines through them all. So I will close with this blessing. May it fill you with hope and peace.

Lost in the Woods: A Blessing by Kathleen Bonanno

When you are certainly lost,
when the wind blows acutely,
when the moon is unavailable,
when tragedy catches up
and walks,
like a companion, by your side,
when the snowflakes fall
may you see a window and a pallid light,
may the light get bolder
as you get closer,
may the light be the sound
of vital laughing,
may the laugh be the laugh
of the ones you’re missing,
may your feet find their way
to the oaken door,
may the door swing open, sure
and slow,
may each kind glad face
to yours.


  1. That was beautiful - thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for sharing your poignant yet uplifting talk!

  3. Emily this post came at exactly the right time for me. I will share it with a friend of mine whose adult son has just died unexpectedly. You are such a wise young woman. We all learn something from you.

    1. Thank you, Diana! I will be holding your friend in prayer - on the death of her son. I miss you and think of you often!

  4. poignant, as always. .