Zach's Story: Good Grief

Photos by Alicia Cory from ShoTcha Photography

One of the first things I noticed about Zach when I met he and his wife, Grace, is that he was wearing a bow tie. Now, I don’t know about you, but I have some preconceived notions about what sort of person wears a bowtie. Like, they are educated and intellectual with a bent toward lightheartedness along with a desire to be seen as less stuffy than those who wear neckties.

I’ll let you decide if Zach fits the bill, or not, when you finish reading.

He was raised in Red Oak, Iowa, which is in the southwest corner of that state. When he was quite young, his parents moved onto a 5-acre homestead parcel smack dab in the middle of Iowa farm fields. The farming continued around them, but as Zach said, he grew up on a farm without any of the responsibility of farming.

The Jagged Edges of Childhood

“Imagine your little seven or eight-year-old self,” I invited. “What do you see and experience when you open your front door?”

“Well, let me see...if I were to look behind me as I walked out the front door I would see my dad slowly transforming the house from that of a farm house to one more suitable for our family. In front of me would be a gravel road with cars flying by at about 60 miles an hour. And, since I didn’t want to be covered with gravel, I would have quickly moved to the backyard where I was constantly digging myself underneath the foundations of old decrepit sheds or climbing tin roofs.”

And, he has the scars from the jagged edges of those tin roofs to prove it.

“I was a child entirely lost in my own imagination,” he said with some satisfaction. “I would go outside and construct entire imaginative worlds in which to live.

“We also had dogs all through my childhood,” he added without prompting. “We had a very round beagle by the name of Buddy along with another beagle named Skipper. She was named Skipper as a puppy and then at some point she found herself in a trap of some variety, which meant that one of her front legs was removed.”

“That meant she actually skipped?” I asked laughing.

“Yeah,” Zach said with a half smile “it turns out she was serendipitously named. We had another dog named Straymond,” he continued. “Like the word “stray” and then “m-o-n-d.” Straymond.”

“Clever!” I exclaimed. “Who named that one?”

“Dad, who was my source of all smart aleck tendencies. Anyway, Straymond had this unfortunate habit of killing kittens.”

“And farms are full of cats,” I said.

“Yeah, well not when Straymond lived there,” Zach said matter-of-fact. “My younger brother, Caleb, and I were trying to play with the kitties that were born under one of those sheds, and yeah, Straymond. I don't remember it, but to this day I still don't want to emotionally commit to cats.”

It was also around this age that Zach was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

“One of the key developmental features of my life was figuring out how to live with a chronic illness that I suspected was life-threatening,” he explained. “I’d seen commercials on television that talked about how it was life-threatening and people around me did their very best to kind of ease those fears by saying I shouldn't have them.”

Mom & Dad (It Was Mom’s idea)

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“Tell me about your parents,” I asked. “How did they meet?”

“Mom and Dad met at a company called Oakview construction. He worked in the field doing the construction work. She was an estimator. As the story goes, he noticed that woman in the red parka and wanted to know a little bit more about her. Then after they’d been dating for a while, she suggested that it was time for them to get married.”

Sounds like my kind of lady! Zach took a sip of his tea and cleared his throat before continuing.

“After they were married and I was coming along, they had kind of a heart-to-heart conversation about how their values and their financial realities meant one parent should stay at home. They decided it would be dad, so in my world it was completely natural that a man be a caretaker.”

His mom eventually rose to the level of Executive Vice President.

“How did they feel about you being a pastor?” I was curious.

“I grew up in a largely non-church-going family, so in around the fifth grade after a friend pointed me toward Jesus, I started attending a Pentecostal church with my grandparents. In college, I realized the Evangelical Covenant Church was more my theological home, so I jumped over there where I love the art of dialogue and disagreeing well.

“When I first talked about ministry to my parents, I spoke in very harsh declarations because at that age I saw things in terms of black and white. And, that wasn’t something my parents were interested in.”

“What age were you at that point?” I asked.

“I was in high school when I started thinking I was definitely going to be a pastor.”

“Oh, so fairly early on?” I was surprised. Probably because I didn’t feel called to ministry until my late 20’s.  

“Yeah. That was the focus of my education during high school and college and then, of course, in seminary. It wasn’t until after college, though, that my parents saw me as more of a gentle pastoral figure. They saw me working very hard to understand what other people were thinking and appreciate others on their terms. That was a big thing.

“At one point, after college, I was asked to officiate a funeral of a family member and I remember my mom saying that that was the first time she really understood what the shape of my ministry would be.”

walking through grief

“But, what led you to chaplaincy?

“Well, through the experience of seminary, being a youth pastor in Iowa and then a pastor in Chicago, I realized that being a chaplain was my truest calling. To be able to be a safe witness bearer to the pain of others is something that's very meaningful to me. So, here I am in Rochester where my wife, Grace, was born and raised, and we're counting this as a place for me to do my good calling of pediatric chaplaincy.”

“How is it you have the capacity to walk with people through their grief,” I asked “because that’s something most people wouldn’t choose to do.”

“I like discovering where is God in someone’s pain - especially as a dialogue partner and friend. Somewhere along the way I discovered I have a knack for doing that with sick children. I think diabetes and the young adulthood experiences all played into that. I've also done a tremendous amount of work to wrap my arms around my own grief, my own sadness and fears, even my own anger and incorporate that into who I am and not be afraid of it.

“Were you afraid of those emotions at one point?” I asked anticipating the answer.

“I was. So, with diabetes -the fear of dying and being told you shouldn't feel that way - made me believe that the shadow side of our emotional spectrum was somehow wrong. That fear of dying later mixed with sadness especially in the 4th or 5th grade when my grandmother died. I was terrified by what it meant for her brain that she had had a stroke. I made strange associations with that where it altered some behaviors.”

“On the day that it was known that my grandmother was going to die, I remember walking along the outside of our fenced-in area. I was as far away from the house while still being in the yard as I could be. Mom had asked if I wanted to talk about it and the notion of talking about it was so terrifying and wrong to me that I carried this sadness and fear.”

“I ran away and stood as far away from the emotional needs I had at that moment as possible. If I was angry, I would try to outrun it. If I was worried or sad I would run as fast as I could. I would do fun things, commit to nothing and intellectualize as much as possible. I analyzed my feelings and collected facts. It wasn't until I was able to wrap my arms around grief and feel that pain that I was able to be truly compassionate for others.”

In 2016, Zach was forced to face his grief when his mother died after a 3-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

“Compassion for others means if I'm in the room with someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, I remember the sadness about losing my mother. Then what I’ll do is let that sadness come to me without letting it take over because I've made friends with that grief. It doesn’t overwhelm me. I've taken on my grief, embraced it, and allowed it to be a guide for me with others. I try to use that as an emotional fuel to make me kind. Perhaps it’s just me standing beside them while the earth is shaking underneath them and I hold them for a little bit so that they don't shake quite so much and fall down quite as hard.”

That seemed, to me, to be a fitting image of what grief does to a person.  

“Is there a specific moment when you realized grief wasn’t going to overwhelm you and you weren’t going to run away?” I asked.

It took him no time to answer. “That was during my chaplaincy residence which is during the time when my mother died. I found myself walking through the hallways of the hospital feeling very, very sad, especially when I was called to the death of a cancer patient. In the patient’s room were the patient’s husband and two adult sons. It was very reminiscent of the scene of my own loss.”

Zach explained that in that moment he realized he wasn’t sinking; his grief wasn’t overwhelming, but it was compelling him forward.

“I remember praying and asking that sadness would make me kind; that anger would make me focused and that fear would make me wise or prudent. That was the moment where I started to realize that I am bringing my sadness into the room because I have no choice and I'm sad in the room with the patient's family. I don't wipe away a tear because the tears are actually giving the family important permission to grieve, too. But through it all, I'm sitting there and I'm able to navigate with intentionality.”

Counseling had also helped prepare Zach for that moment.

“But and you know,” he continued, “I think another thing that helps me to grieve is my belief that the work of grief is to transform the love you have for a person into a new kind of love and connection that extends beyond their death. And so, strangely, honestly, a good part of what I do is honoring the legacy I've inherited from my mother and it's a way of doing a living legacy to my father who taught me that men are compassionate.

“I refuse to look at grief as a burden that weighs me down. There are times where it is burdensome, but its primary purpose is to be a motivation to live life in memory and with responsibility to the people you are grieving.”

Without even realizing it, I found myself sharing my own experience with grief having lost my brother-in-law, Troy, to pancreatic cancer 6.5 years ago. It was only as I listened back to our conversation, that I realized Zach was doing with me what he does with countless others. He was listening, honoring, and sharing in my grief.

Love Story

“How did you meet Grace? Tell me a little bit about your love story,” I prompted.

“So, we had a class together my first semester of seminary in Chicago: New Testament 100 with Klyne Snodgrass. I was always on time to Klyne’s class and Grace was not. So, my first introduction to Grace is this beautiful woman with a hat pulled down over eyes sneaking into class and sitting in the back.

“Her first significant memory of me was of my jacket. I’d left it at a party and apparently someone pointed out that it was Zach’s jacket’ and she had this strange warmth kind of scoot around her for a little bit.”

Classmates began to notice that Zach and Grace were together a fair amount and they encouraged the pair to date, but Zach recalls he and Grace didn’t date until after seminary.

“I think for defiance as much as anything else,” he recalled.

It was Grace who finally asked Zach if they were ever going to get together. Remember how it was Zach’s mom who suggested marriage to Zach’s dad? There might be a trend here for the men in Zach’s family.

“So, being a ridiculous, ridiculous man, I entered into several months of intense soul-searching and negotiations before I decided whether or not that was something we wanted to do.”

As it turns out it was something he wanted to do.

“Shortly after Grace and I started dating my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and we were both under employed in our jobs were difficult. And and yeah, so there was nothing like fairytale and butterflies. Now, we're having fun together and finally just enjoying life and one another. But, yeah, the hallmark of the start of our relationship was a very serious diagnosis for my mother.

“I'm so glad that Mom got to meet Grace. We didn't know how significant it was that we started dating. We didn't know how important it was that we went down to see her as often as we did. There were a lot of things that we didn't know but as I look back with grief and with love at those three or four years that we had in Chicago, I'm filled with gratitude for those difficult days because it gave me something that I otherwise would not have had.”

Favorite Author & What Makes Your Blood Boil

“Who's your favorite author right now?”  I’m always looking for something new to read.

“Neil Gaiman. British guy. Fun. He writes fantastical, ridiculous, hilarious, sometimes kind of dark stories.”  

“What makes you angry?” I asked.

“What makes me angry?” Zach repeated.

“Yeah. What makes your blood boil?” I mean Zach doesn’t seem like the angry type, but he’s still human.

“Yes. Yeah,” he said as he took a sip from his mug. “I think the biggest thing that makes me angry most often is when I feel like I did not live up to the standards that I've set for myself. But when you're talking about what makes me the angriest, it's the vulnerable being victimized in any capacity.  If someone is being taken advantage of I get very upset about that. In that case, I ask my anger to make me focused in order to be an agent of peaceful but impactful change.

We talked some more about ministry and life (pastor shop talk) while Zach finished the contents of his mug.

finitione

After he left, I thought back to what Zach had told me about his childhood. How he would get lost in his imagination and run away when faced with difficult emotions. The things is, when a person runs away from something they end up running directly to something else. In Zach’s case, I realized he ran toward the things which gave him relief from the pain he was feeling. Things like laughter and lightheartedness. In running away, Zach developed an immense capacity for fun. I’m glad that despite all the work he has done to face his grief, fear, and anger, he has retained his laughter and lightheartedness.

I can’t think of a better combination for a person who journeys alongside the grief and fear of children and their families.

And, that’s the sorta guy who most definitely would wear a bowtie.

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