WHEN IS IT TOO LATE TO SEND A CONDOLENCE CARD?
Of course, the answer is “never.” That was my first thought when I received an email from a Rabbi in New York I have never met. But then, I realized this seemingly random connection had a much deeper and more profound meaning. I will pick up with the first question and write more about that subject in a later post.
This email arrived early Thursday evening, November 15, a week before Thanksgiving; a week after our son Jimmy’s 35th birthday. His birthday and holidays are always emotional, and sometimes the pot gets stirred and stuff happens. This was one of those times.
Hilary and I were kind of watching T.V. My phone buzzed, and I gave it a glance. There was an email from a Rabbi, first name Regina. Didn’t ring a bell but the subject line immediately got my attention:
YOUR SON…YOUR FATHER…AND YOU
Dear Mr. Gauntt,
First, I hope you and yours are safe from the California wildfires, and I send prayers for those in danger.
You don’t know me, but 13 years ago this month I participated in the 2005 Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau with your son (and brother). I had some wonderful conversations at that retreat with your son (whom I knew as Jim), and from time to time look affectionately at some retreat photos taken by Peter Cunningham. I’ve attached two–one that I titled “JamesX2” and the other that shows me and Jim clowning in the back at the final night celebration in Krakow (I’m actually doing a backbend below camera range; Jim’s hand is balancing me from above).
I am not on social media and have not been in touch with most fellow retreatants until the past few days, when I put together a blog post on my 2005 experiences at the Bearing Witness Retreat in light of recent painful events. As I reconnected with James Powell, I looked online for James Gauntt…and only in the last hour discovered the tragedy with which you and your family have lived every day for the past 10 years.
Then I read about your personal transformation and healing in two generational directions, and decided to reach out to you and share the post that I’ll be sending out tomorrow: http://waysofpeace.org/after-the-shattering-bearing-witness
These are the kinds of experiences that inform my own work with WAYS OF PEACE, and I wanted to express my deepest appreciation for your loving, spiritual gifts that shine out of the depths of great pain.
May the memories of James Tedrow Gauntt–and Grover Cleveland Gauntt, Jr.–continue to be for many blessings of healing, consolation, hope and peace. Sincerely, Regina
My heart was racing and my eyes were getting a little misty on my first high-speed pass through her email; and when I opened the first of the two photos she attached, I completely broke down.
Oh my God! We had never before seen this photo of Jimmy (who is on the right next to whom I would later confirm as James Powell). My body convulsed with shudders and goosebumps. It felt like we were receiving, through the Rabbi as a medium, a big “Hello!” from Jimmy. Strike ‘it felt like’—it was without question a message from our son. I just knew it in my heart.
As mentioned, while reading this and bawling my eyes out, the TV is on, volume is pretty loud, and Hilary is on the couch reading a magazine. She didn’t see my melt-down and, after a brief internal debate, I decided to hold off sharing this with her and our daughter Brittany until the next morning. Only one of us needed to lose it this late in the day.
Brittany’s reaction to the photo said it best: And that picture of Jimmy! He looks so much like mom. And just so something. Different. Like Jimmy from the future.
He does look older than his 21 years at the time. Angelic, with an all-knowing grin. And he’s looking at the camera—at us—not where his friend his looking.
Here is the other photo from the Rabbi. Jimmy is on the staircase reaching his hand down to the outstretched hand of Regina whose body is obscured. The good-looking silver-haired fellow seated to the left is my brother, Roshi Genro Gauntt. He invited Jimmy to attend that retreat in Poland and, as he’s done for over twenty years, was one of the Retreat leaders and organizers.
I thought ‘How wonderful and courageous for this woman to reach out to us like this; thirteen years after she met Jimmy for that one time.’ Not many would do that, particularly someone who was a stranger to us. She had obviously read our story of the letter from my father arriving in my hands 40 years later at precisely the moment it would have the most impact and meaning for me and our family.
But then again, she is a Rabbi, and after I read more about her and her work on her website, I realized she is a deeply spiritual, compassionate healer, and has devoted much of her life to helping others deal with the challenges and opportunities of life and death.
This topic of “those-who-just- found-out” came up at the last gathering of our Fraternity of Dads. Jeff mentioned running into an old friend at a reunion of his medical school class. They hadn’t seen each other for many years and he asked Jeff, “How is your daughter, Ariana? Didn’t she have some issues with her heart.” Jeff’s reply drained all of the color from the poor fellow’s face. “Ariana passed away ten years ago—she was 13.”
Chris was in Texas over Thanksgiving visiting his daughter, Emily. He ran into an old buddy in a bar in Corpus Christi, a tough ex-Marine with three tours in Afghanistan. Eight years earlier, Chris and his son, Christian, had spent an afternoon with the Marine. They were playing with his remote-controlled airplane and, as they were getting ready to leave, the Marine gave it to Christian. Now running into Chris in the bar, and after a hug, he asked “Hey, how is your boy, Christian?”
“Oh man, I’m sorry to have to tell you this. Christian died six years ago.”
The tough ex-Marine fell to pieces and was inconsolable.
I remember early on when this would happen—running into a friend or colleague who didn’t know—and thinking ‘How is this possible? Everyone in the entire Universe must have known Jimmy died. This was a world-ending event!’ Now ten years in, it occurs less frequently, but it’s still a bit of a stunner.
Both Jeff and Chris observed that, with the passing of the years it’s less tough (note the avoidance of the word ‘easier’) to let folks know of their child’s passing, however it is still painful to see the shock, horror, disbelief and devastation in the eyes of the unsuspecting as they get the news for the first time. It’s like looking in a mirror of what our faces must have looked like when we got “the news.” We are now at a place where we can actually feel sorry for these poor souls.
Something was nagging at me about the Rabbi’s email. Why was she reaching out to me now-after so many years—at this particular moment in time? Don’t get me wrong. I am more than grateful that she did—our whole family is. I thought about her mention of reconnecting with James Powell who was at the 2005 Retreat. Jimmy was spending his senior year at Queens College in London when my brother invited Jimmy to join him that November in Poland.
And then it all came rushing back in! Something very, very important happened to Jimmy on that retreat and it involved James Powell. I wrote about it in the Brothers Chapter of Suffering Is the Only Honest Work. Bear with me as I provide a recap.
On the Retreat Jimmy met James Powell who at the time was a doctoral student in history at Oxford and also a fledgling practitioner of Shamanism. Jimmy complained of a persistent stitch in his side and James offered this observation, “A spirit has attached itself to you. It’s the spirit of your paternal grandfather. I can remove it, if you like.” James performed a brief ceremony involving a crystal and blowing into the wind. Jimmy fibbed and said, “Thanks, I feel much better.”
Jimmy told Brittany about it and several months later she mentioned it to me. When I gently brought it up with him when he got back home that summer in 2006, he uncharacteristically bristled, “I don’t want to talk about it.” He later apologized, but never mentioned my dad or the ceremony and basically dismissed the whole thing as “really nothing.”
A few weeks after Jimmy’s death, Brittany was over—as she was almost every day—and we were of course talking about Jimmy. She mentioned the spirit attachment story and revealed more of her conversations with Jimmy about it. “Jimmy told me that before and after the Poland trip he felt a peculiar connection with your dad. Jimmy was aware of something around him, and he was compelled to learn more. Jimmy was obsessed with finding out everything he could about your father.”
Brittany said he would spend hours in our attic looking through boxes of family scrapbooks and photographs. He read the letters my dad had written to my mom and his parents during World War II and searched for photos of my dad—his grandfather—as a young boy, soldier, young father and middle-aged man. She said ‘’Jimmy made me promise not to tell you about it– ‘It will freak Dad out.’”
And he was so right. This scared the hell out of me. The idea of my father—this dark, silent, depressed man who blew his brains out when he was 51 years old, perched on my son’s shoulder and somehow influencing him, opened the flood gates to all that dread, fear and anger I’d so painstakingly corralled for over 38 years.
After Brittany left, Hilary and I talked some more and she later recalled the conversation. “I had never seen you so angry. Do you remember what you said?” I did not. “You said, ‘What the hell is my dad doing hanging around Jimmy? If he had something to do with Jimmy’s death, I don’t think I can live with that.’”
I was in a dark place. The next night I had a dream about my Dad. And we talked. This was a huge deal! In all my previous dreams of him after he took his life, he would show up at my childhood home in Itasca. My first thought was always ‘What are you doing here?’ He always seemed preoccupied, disconnected and never-ever-uttered a word. The next day I had my regular weekly session with my psychologist, Dr. A, and told him about the dream and our conversation with Brittany. He suggested I get a hold of my brother and track down James. “Talk to this shaman and get his side of the story. There’s a powerful connection among your father, Jimmy and you. We need to see where this is going.”
I called my brother and I told him why I needed to talk to James. I didn’t remember his last name. I didn’t even know what he looked like. Genro knew nothing about the spirit attachment and had no recollection of the guy. I expressed my grave concerns and he said, “Casey, this possession would have only been a good thing. Dad would only be around Jimmy to protect and look after him.”
I said to myself ‘Well, if that’s true then why did James offer to remove the spirit?” As I said, I was in a dark place.
The next day, November 1, my brother was back in Poland for the 2008 Bearing Witness Retreat, and he sent me this email. “I found him! He’s James Powell. Here’s his email address. Good luck.”
On November 3, I got the call from Emily Sue Buckberry—a woman I met and barely knew in Coalwood, West Virginia in the summer of 1968— telling me about this letter from my father that she kept for 40 years. She got the letter to me on November 8—three months after Jimmy’s death—Jimmy’s 25th birthday. The Letter-The Film by Steve Date
Shortly after we got the letter Hilary, who is very intuitive as is our daughter, observed “You’ve been angry with your dad for a long time. And when you blamed him for maybe having something to do with Jimmy’s death that was the final straw. He had to make this right and could not let this stand. He came through to express his eternal love for you, his son.”
Of course, she was right.
A week after I got Dad’s letter I reached out to James Powell. I broke the news of Jimmy’s death and we arranged a call for a couple of days later. He fondly remembered Jimmy, but not much about the spirit attachment or the removal ceremony. I told him the fresh story of the letter and he offered this assessment:
“This is utterly amazing.“—as only an Englishman with a Phd. from Oxford can say it— “It seems very clear to me that your father is coming through to let you know there is life, or something, after death, he loves you, and love goes on. Your father is connecting with you. He probably waited a few months after Jimmy’s death to let the pain subside. Emily Sue Buckberry appears to be a conduit in this. Jimmy may, or may not, be involved. Jimmy may not be ready to come through to you. This is all very good. There’s a lot of mystery; so much we don’t and maybe are not supposed to know or be aware of.”
He asked me if I was open to these things and I said “Definitely.”
“Good. More may be happening. You should write a book about it.”
I checked my notes of my first contact with James Powell—November 15, 2008–exactly ten years to the day of the Rabbi’s email to me.
More dots connected, and loops closed.
For starters, I now know what James Powell looks like!
And as I look into Jimmy’s eyes in that photograph of the two Jameses I detect in his churlish grin a message: ‘Dad, I’m glad you’re not freaked out any more about my connection with my grandfather-your dad- and my need to know more about him. You now know why it was supposed to happen. It’s all good. We’re all good.”
I can now see clearly the seeds my healing began in November of 2005 at the Bearing Witness Retreat in Poland. It was because of Jimmy running into James Powell, James’ observation of his grandfather’s presence around Jimmy, and my complete misread and anger over what happened that made my dad open that door—that portal—and come through and rescue me. My dad came through and made things right. Only then was I able to begin my grieving and healing from his death. And as Dr. A so astutely observed during my first session with him six weeks after Jimmy died, “Until you deal with your dad, you won’t be able to deal with your son’s loss.”
Thank you, James Powell.
Thank you Genro (Grover, G.G.) my brother, for inviting your nephew on that Retreat and your guidance and mentorship of him—and me.
Thank you Rabbi Regina for reopening this door, reconnecting me with James Powell and shining more light on these amazing mysteries.
I Googled “What to write to a cousin who’s 24 year old son died suddenly?” And I clicked on the first thing I read which was you. I haven’t looked any further because I felt an instant connection to everything you’ve written. The Dont’s and Do’s in writing a condolence card. I only recently discovered my cousin’s loss after reading a post she’d written on FB announcing Will’s 25th birthday in September and although still suffering from the shock of it, she, her husband and Will’s two younger brothers would be celebrating his birthday with a Steak Dinner and raising a glass of wine to him. As you can imagine, my family has never been close but the offspring of my Mom and my maternal Uncle spoke of how we would like to change all of that. We never did and I find sadness in this especially when a tragedy strikes home. I researched any information I could find on my cousin’s son but it seems there’s a tight lid on all of the particulars except that he passed away in February. He was in the Army and stationed in Alaska. I did watch a Memorial Service that his battalion put on in March and I finally found an obituary written in his parent’s city of residence. I already did one of your 1st “don’ts” but commenting on her FB post, but I have felt that I need to write a more personal condolence to her and her family. Your words give me the courage to move forward with my intuition. Thank you for sharing your very personal experiences. Grieving is not what my family has much experience with. Death, Yes; Not Grief.
Molly- thank you for reaching out. I’m grateful that what we have learned was of some help to you as you grieve the death of your cousin’s son and express your condolences. I’m sure you will write something beautiful. Please also know that it is never too late to mend and strengthen relationships with family members no matter how distant or separated from them we may feel. I know your cousin will be grateful to hear from you, especially after several months have already passed. It’s never too late! Casey