on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Grief Unleashed in Nashville

This post is the eighth in a series, “Lessons from my Father, Lewis Marler,” who lived from 1921-1998.

I graduated from seminary in December, 1980, and I was fortunate to get a job at a large church in Louisville, KY as the Minister of Pastoral Care. At the same time, my father was the senior pastor in a similar size church 350 miles south in Alabama.

About a year into my new job, I got a call from my father.  He said, “Why don’t we both drive 175 miles tomorrow and meet halfway in Nashville and have lunch together just for the fun of it.  Can you get off work?”  It was an impromptu opportunity that I didn’t want to miss.  “That sounds great,” I answered, “where can we meet?”  He suggested a restaurant at the Grand Ole Opry Hotel.

We met the next day and sat down in the restaurant and began talking.  The conversation flowed freely.  Before long, I asked him to tell me stories about my mother who had died suddenly when I was ten years old.  As you can imagine it was an incredibly traumatic experience for my family.  She had died at home without warning at 41 years old, a few days after a hysterectomy.  A blood clot broke loose and went to her lung.

“How did the two of you meet?” I wanted to know.  “How did you know she was the one you wanted to marry?  Tell me again about her personality?  Do I remember correctly that she took every course in seminary with you but couldn’t get credit because she was female?  Tell me, tell me.”

He became misty eyed as he talked about my mother and apologized.  I encouraged him to keep talking and reassured him he could cry all he wanted since we didn’t know anyone at the hotel or in Nashville anyway.

The waitress grew tired of our two hour lunch and we finally paid our bill.  I wanted to hear more.  “Let’s sit down in the lobby,” he suggested.  Three hours, four hours went by.  It started to get dark.  “Do you want to check into a room and get some dinner?  I’ll buy.” he offered.

“Yes, I would love that,” I smiled.  We both called our wives and told them we wouldn’t be home that night because we were going to stay with one another at the hotel.

We had all the time in the world to talk without interruptions, and both of us chose to be vulnerable and honest with the other.  I realized we had both kept our grief about my mother bottled up for sixteen years.  Sixteen years.

We talked through dinner.  We went to the room and stretched out on the beds and talked until 3 a.m. He poured out his heart about the grief he had carried.  I was the counselor, he was the client.  And then we intuitively reversed roles.  He asked me to say a prayer for him at one point and we held hands in the hotel room and prayed out loud.

It was the kind of opportunity that parents and adult children rarely have, and even more rarely take advantage of.  We were real with one another and held nothing back about the most painful time of our life.  Adult to adult.

As hard as it is to imagine, we had never talked about my mother in great detail after she died.  It was an unhealthy way to deal with grief.  My dad had tried to be “strong” for his two kids (not cry in front of them), and my sister and I had tried to be “good” so as not to upset him.  We loved and encouraged one another over all those years, but we had never talked in detail like this.

I learned during the weekend he had sought therapy and medication for deep depression over the last 16 years because of the grief.  My father heard for the first time how I had stuffed my grief and withheld a portion of my heart in relationships.  Eventually, I too would need years of counseling to unpack my own grief.

He had lost the love of his life when she was 41 years old.  I had lost my mother who was my whole world as a 10 year old boy. My father and I had both been lost, and that weekend helped us both to find a new way.  Sixteen long years.

The next morning we had breakfast together, walked to our cars, hugged and drove back to our homes.  It was a life changing experience for me.

Ironically, my father had helped hundreds of people through their grief since my mother’s death.  And I had developed a passion in doing the same in my work.  We teach what we need to learn, don’t we?

When it comes to grief, my father and I both had to learn the hard way.  We needed to get help and to find companions in the journey.

My father taught me so.


And what about for you?  Have you had grief in your life through a death, a divorce, or other areas?  And what have you done with that grief?  How have others helped you through it?  I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

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  1. Jeff Jones

    I took over as Chair of Deacons, of the same large church in Louisville Malcolm mentioned, in October of 1995. I was so excited about the opportunity to lead our deacons in their ministry obligations. But God had other plans for me. Only one week later I experienced the greatest tragedy of my life….the loss of my Father.

    He died, expectedly, but suddenly. Expectedly, because he had suffered from heart problems for over 30 years. Yes, God knew exactly what He was doing. I was looking forward to being a leader in ministry to my church but He knew I would need the loving ministry of my church so He put me right in the middle where I would be loved the most. I had never known pain like that before and didn’t know it was possible.

    I felt guilt for the many times I had ministered to others and not really comprehending their pain of loss until it happened to me. I locked myself out of my house and my car more than once. I lost my sense of humor for three years. I remember standing in line at a fast food restaurant in what I can only describe as surreal experience, wondering, as I looked around at the people, how many of them were in pain.

    I had never been so aware of pain before. My church loved me all the way through that awful time. They let me cry in front of them. I remember thanking them from the pulpit telling them I had felt every kind word, every hug, every phone call, every card and every prayer.

  2. Malcolm

    Jeff, thank you for sharing about your father’s death and the incredible support you received from your church community. You had a wonderful gift given to you during the most difficult time of your life, that is, people to walk closely with you. I’m thankful you did. Peace to you and thanks again for telling your story.

  3. Rita Schaffer

    Malcolm. It is amazing the feelings that we harbor… keep to ourselves when we feel we can’t or shouldn’t trouble someone else with. Not knowing that sharing these can truly help someone else.

    Jesse was 5 years old when his sister, Abbey Grace, was born and shortly thereafter went to the arms of our God. Below is a poem that he wrote when he was 16 – the writings of a growing young man, the soul of that 5 year old. May I share it?

    A Breath of Grace
    By: Jesse Schaffer

    I already have two.
    What is one more?
    But then…
    No more.
    It’s all gone,
    All faded away.
    My father dressed in a white robe
    And a surgeon’s mask,
    Stammered two words
    With what seemed to be his last breath:
    “She’s gone”.
    Two words…
    Even though I did not know it then,
    It changed my life.
    How could two words rule my life?
    My arms heavy, burdened, dead weight.
    Chubby, cute, healthy, lovely…
    But all that masked by bruises –
    “Not bruises,” they explained,
    But she is as purple as a ripe plum…
    Only because she lacks –
    That necessity of life that
    Fills my lungs as I speak.
    Life, a God given right…
    Taken away!
    Once again I fill my lungs
    With that gem of life she lacked…
     … And beheld – my baby sister.

    Abbey Grace Schaffer
    Born: December 5, 1997
    Died: A few moments later – December 5, 1997
    Beloved Daughter and Sister

  4. Malcolm

    Dear Rita, Jesse’s poem about his sister who only lived a few moments is powerful. Oh my goodness. And the fact that he wrote that many years later but he was still a teenager at 16. What a gifted insightful young man he is. I am sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing the poem and your thoughts with my readers.

  5. Alice

    Wow, your story sent chills down my arms as I read.

    My unpacking of grief has been from incest issues; the more unpacking, the more freedom lived.

    Thanks for telling your stories,
    Alice, Kentucky

  6. Malcolm

    Dear Alice, thank you for your comments about this story. It was one of those pivotal moments in my life. Thank you for having the courage to share about your unpacking of grief and the ensuing freedom. I have no doubt others will read your brief words and be helped by it. Peace.

  7. Linda Rodgers

    I was 25 when my father was killed in a farm accident. My brother will always bare some guilt about it even though he was just following Daddy’s instructions. We got through w/ prayers and hugs from family and our church friends. I truely felt arms around me when there were no people standing close by. It was living through this that made me determined that my children had a chance at a loving church family as how anyone can get through hard times w/o the arms of God around you I don’t know. It was people like you who really helped me heal and this is what I will tell Allison when I am interviewed for her church history class paper about what has shaped my faith.

  8. Malcolm

    Dear Linda, I am thankful you had the loving arms of a faith community who made a difference for you during difficult times. Many people never experience that in their entire lives. Thank you also for your kind comments. That means more than you know.

  9. kathy thomson

    I lost my beloved twin brother in a car wreck last summer, and our father had died 6 months before that. The loss of my brother was devastating beyond what I thought I could endure. However, I did endure and now when I hear stories of others grief, I have a new compassion and empathy for them. The good that has come is that I am more present in the day every day, and more grateful for all my blessings.

  10. Malcolm

    Kathy, I am very sorry to hear about the death of your twin brother in a car wreck, and also the loss of your father. That must have been overwhelming to have those losses so close together. The fact that you can hear stories of other people’s grief at all, much less that you can have a compassion for them is an encouraging sign of healing. Keep telling your story, you are inspiring to many of us.

    Thank you.

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