Saturday, April 8, 2017

Bob's cowboy box

One day out of the blue I received a call from Bob. Apparently he had seen my box making article in the citizen a couple of years ago and he wanted me to build a box for him. He didn't just want any box, he loved the style of a 6 sided coffin or as I called it cowboy box (one you would see in an old western movie). If you live in north america this design has been coopted by the gothe or the halloween brand. It one lived in the UK, however, it is the most predominant design.     Bob knew what he wanted and felt that his dual purpose box could start with 3 shelves that would hold his stereo equipment.You see in addition to being a logger and a rancher, Bob, was also a musician. I have found that when people allow themselves to explore their creative nature, they get connected to their integrated self which includes their emotional side and their sense of spirituality. (I will share more about this in a future post when I explore the book by Julia Cameron called "the artists way")

When I spoke with Bob it was clear that he was the kind of guy that didn't mind getting his hands dirty. When I suggested that we build the box together, Bob loved the idea. Although he lived a couple of hours out of Prince George, he was commuting back and forth for his medical appointments. I had suggested having a couple of days to work on the project but when the time came, the weather intervened and I ended up doing the first day on my own. We then did the final assembly and rough finishing together. You could tell that Bob was excited to have the opportunity of working on his own box.

I told Bob that one day I desired to write a book and asked him if he minded having me record our conversation. He gave me his verbal consent and we went about building the box. What I realized in hindsight is that the act of recording the conversation created the opportunity for Bob to tell his story. I pressed record and the first thing Bob said to me is, "I had my first beer when I was 10 years old …"
Bob was reluctant to have his story focused on himself or his cancer narrative. He had chosen to tell me the very roots of his story,a place in which he explained his lengthy relationship with alcohol. You see in hindsight, the alcohol narrative defined how his story would end, but I am getting ahead of myself.  I felt honored to be in Bob's presence and to stand witness to his story and hear it from beginning to end. I only hope that by blogging about this experience and posting on facebook this story will find it's way back to some of Bob's family and friends.

Bob's story included the death of both his parents and how he moved back home to help out with their care. He told me of his dozen close calls in which he almost met his maker, but somehow survived. One of the purposes that his survival created was the opportunity to assist in their final years of life. He also told of the death of 2 of his siblings at the ages of 56. He talked about surviving the family curse the year that he turned 57. I was impressed with Bob's ability to express his vulnerability and express himself to someone that he just met. I guess that reaffirms by belief of the bridge that the building of a simple pine box creates. There was also time when the emotions started to flow and at these moments the natural tendency was to put ear protection on and start to use the power tools. This allowed the space to meditate on the feelings in a very introspective way. This is much more challenging to create this space within a counselling office, and I suspect that I could have never corralled Bob into this formal therapeutic space.

 At the end of the build, Bob was surprised when he told me how good he felt. I had told him that I did traditional grief counselling but he felt that this was much more beneficial and he suggested that everyone should have this opportunity to engage in such a process. I appreciated this endorsement although I already knew the truth about the transformative power of a simple pine box.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Winkel (How a box becomes a bridge)

March 14,2016

I met a friend a couple of days ago while working at the hospital. Her mother in law had just experienced a significant stoke. A few days later she called me and asked me if I could help them build a casket. You see, Alice had been around me long enough to hear about some of the stories of transforming grief by making a simple pine box(SPB). Her husband loved the idea of making a box for his mom but he needed some guidance and someone to bounce ideas off of. We connected and had coffee, I lent him some tools and off they went.

One of the first transformations they experienced is that their son, Kevin took charge of much of the work. You see we forget that although a few people are inundated with things to do, there are those around who have very little to do. Kevin sprang into action shoveling the deck of snow and setting up the canopy, creating a work space on their deck just outside of their living room.

The next transformation the SPB provided was buy in from the funeral celebrant. You see, the Winkel's didn't belong to a church community. When Eric was thinking about what his mom would have wanted, words like simple, humble, respectful came to mind. He felt that a Church would create the right setting for his mother's service. The problem was that it was the Easter long weekend and although Eric had attended a local church once, the staff didn't know him or the family.  Alice called the pastor up and was told that because they didn't have a connection to the Church he most likely wouldn't be able to perform the service. (ie. you are not part of our village) The pastor then asked to speak with Eric, and Alice said that he couldn't talk right now because he was outside working on the casket. The pastor changed his tune almost immediately and suggested that he come by the house that afternoon and talk further. I don't begrudge the hesitancy of the pastor, I suspect that they screen a lot of requests like this and due to the limited time, they usually turn down requests that don't originate within their congregations. When he heard about the SPB however, it piqued his interests and it created a spontaneous invitation into the village. (for more on this discussion see the post titled "no service by request".

Not only did the casket create the bridge of connection for the pastor but it continued to be the thread through out the service, guiding the narrative of the story. The pastor had suggested that in all his years doing this work, he had never come across a family who build their own casket. He talked about how people are so disconnected from death. So many people now a days chose to not have services, thinking that it will be too difficult to deal with all those messy emotions.

Alice later told me that this was the perspective that her mother shared, up until she heard about the building of the casket. Her mom had thought that she doesn't want her casket to be present at the funeral. It is just too difficult, the grand kids would have a tough time of it. She didn't see the benefit or purpose of having the body present. It seemed like an old custom that has outgrown it's usefulness.

I would suggest the opposite is true from my experience. I have seen what happens when families take charge of the caring of the dead from the beginning (usually with the acceptance of working on the box). Once the families take ownership of the process, it seems natural to include opportunity for themselves and others to make similar connections. I have seen families who would have never thought to have the SPB present at the service change their mind and include it. They also may chose to be present when cremation or burial occurs. I think this idea of "out of sight, out of mind" has infected our beliefs around ritual and mourning. There is the thought if we fast forward over the messy bits, we will somehow skip the difficult aspects of the death experience. 

One of the things I sometimes hear from family is that they don't have a lot of time. Why would they add another task onto the "to do list".  I find it interesting how we try and cram this ritual into a compressed time frame. It is usually because of pragmatic details of how long out of town family are going to be around. I do find however that sometimes once you commit to the building of a SPB, it will be squeezed into the margins of the things to do and over time it can take centre stage and guide the family into the activities that are important. I heard this when the family found themself at the crematorium and were wondering what to do next.

As Alice suggested, "we are white, we don't have rituals around this kind of stuff". When a family chooses to take part in the experience, there are periods of time that are punctuated, a vacuum is created and spontaneous ritual flows in. This is what occurred when friends of theirs gifted them with the sound of drumming, and the power of story telling.

A SPB can create safe space for reflection. Death can be one of the scariest things we will experience. To have the opportunity to engage with our hands and our heads in a meaningful way can move that energy from fear to creativity. It was also interesting to hear feedback from the Winkel's village once they exposed them to this new/old way of doing. There was not one negative comment and others felt that they wanted to include this tradition when they go. My heart is warm when I hear people participating in ritual in such a way that links the reality that someday all of us will get to the end of our time...