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Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)

So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us.  We should grieve as people of hopeso what does that mean?

Here is where grace enters in powerfully.  “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life.  Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful.  I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her.  If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come.  If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.

Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; s_s_hopestruck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”

  1. Perplexed but not driven to despair
  2. Persecuted but not forsaken
  3. Struck down but not destroyed

What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering.  It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting

  1. The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them.  Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
  2. The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience.  In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!

I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive  energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember” Read the rest of this entry

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows

  We must face our losses.  Courage does not spare us from them. 

Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.

          Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death.  It is, in many ways, our most universal experience.  It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship.  The question is, “What are we to do with it?”

I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.

One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is  this one:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.   1 Thess. 4:13

 I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.

The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Read the rest of this entry

In Memory of a Dhogg

My kids are headed our way from NY for the holiday, but had the sadness of the death of their beloved dog, Mara. Mara had lived a good, long life, and like any family pet, had the run of the house. When our oldest granddaughter was born in Seattle five years ago, I was given the couch as my sleeping quarters, and she slept next to me on the floor, licking my hand regularly through the night, which, if not a regular experience, is a bit of a start for a sleeping person. Burglar or beloved, a licked hand is terrifying.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Eventually over those happy days we became friends and I would return the greeting in my sleep with a perfunctory half dozen strokes. These creatures who live with us accompany us in life, become part of the furniture of our homes. We miss them when they are gone.

It was time, as that time always comes, and Mara had no regrets. I reminded my daughter that marah could be taken as the Hebrew word for “bitter,” but Mara seemed remarkably sanguine toward the discomforts and outrageous fortunes of human beings and their ways. And she had it good–her own facebook page as Mara D Dhogg, the run of the house, better medical care than any except Read the rest of this entry

Another Day of Terror: Holy Week Reflection

I woke up to the bad news from Brussels, Belgium today. We are so numbed to the violence on our globe, we have to wonder about the ambivalent gift of “information.” There is no time to digest, reflect, pray, consider. We are, instead, an endless echo of bad news cycles, compounded by the “unsocial media” that encourages the worst among us to speak loudly even if it is unworthy to hear. Here is the reflection I sent to my congregation today:


The recurring horror of terrorism is found in the terrorists themselves.  They are, finally, demented haters of life, of humanity, of our collective existence—that is the essence of terrorists’ acts. There is nothing in them but absolute despair of hope, and the desire to destroy it in all others for the sake of fantastic delusions of forcing the hand of the universe to bend to their will. There is nothing at the end of

Brussels Subway system attacked

their action except death and blood.

They are not new. Throughout all of history, they have killed, as governments and society seek to kill them in response. On and on the fatal disaster continues, hopelessly. It is into Holy Week that the latest delusion happens. In Brussels the fanatics strike civilization once more, convinced that they will prevail, and destined absolutely to fail.

Of all weeks, this one should comfort those who believe in Christ Jesus. Of all people, we began in a story of unjust death, amid terrorists who led people into the desert (Acts 21:38) and to the top of Masada only to die for nothing and their hopes dashed. Those who waved the palms would flee for their lives—and for what? The emptiness of a lost cause. Read the rest of this entry

Getting Ready to Die … and Live

A friend asked me about this piece.  I wrote it a few years back while talking to an engineer friend who was then trying to prepare for the end of his life. He kept asking me, “Gary, how do I KNOW I’m ready to die.” And I kept answering with pastoral comfort about facing death, quoting verses, and my typical caring responses. When I got home, I expressed my sense of frustration.  “I don’t think I answered his question, because he kept re-asking it.”

Vickie said, “Gary, he wants a punch list.  He’s an engineer (my wife’s father was an engineer), he wants a list of things to do.” Well, Myers Briggs, you did it again. So I set about a list, and she helped me with it. I have shared this often with my deacons in the church, with individuals, and it seemed useful to share it here if it helps. This is my list, so yours may be a little different, and it certainly isn’t exhaustive, but I know this: if you spend time preparing for death, you will really be prepared anew for life.

 

Getting Prepared to Die—and to Live

Gary and Vickie Furr Read the rest of this entry

Charlie and the Kardashians

Twitter is a wonderful tool.  I keep up with dozens of journals, news sources, and artists who interest me through it.  Of course, if you lack a trash filter, you can easily get distracted onto thousands of useless spiritual cul-de-sacs.  They are hard to resist.  For some reason, two stories caught my momentary attention.  One said, “Taylor Swift may never marry.”  The other said, “Teen Mom photographed in bikini.  Makes sex tape with porn star.”  My reponse to the first is, “Uh, Taylor Swift is free to not marry.  Think I’ll survive.”  The second?  “Someone needs to help that child before she makes another stupid mess out of her life.”

What’s the deal with us?  People ruining themselves is momentarily interesting, of course, but it’s the spiritual equivalent of eating only French fries for the rest of your life.  You’ll pay for it eventually.

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Charlie and me on a good day.

My day was not nearly so glam.  I conducted a funeral for one of my dearest friends in the world.  He was the chair of the committee that brought me to my present church twenty years ago.  He was always the one who was working behind the scenes to lead through others without a spotlight on himself.  Today, after the service, the stories poured out of things he accomplished, family members he helped with finances or trouble, lives changed because Charlie said, “I think you ought to do it.”

I had a copy of his autobiography written years ago, just so his family might know about his life.  I read back through it before I did the eulogy.  It was a story like many from his generation—love of family, friends, faith, and helping others.  He rose to a Vice Presidency in the Bell system before he finished, but you would never know it.  Everyone felt like his best friend, although if you fought him, he was tough.  He had a way, said one friend, of being determined and once he set his mind on what was right, there was no way you would stop him.  But he was never mean about it. Read the rest of this entry

Standing Next to Death

I have not posted here in a month.  I took the month of January off in a period of “lying fallow,” if someone with as many hats as I wear can ever really “lie fallow.”  Truth is, though, I ;have been learning to stop now and then, reassess and see how we’re all doing.

gravesideMostly in this month I’ve been working hard.  The church where I am Pastor had six deaths in about three weeks.  All were  friends (and that is becoming the most common description of who I funeralize now, since my 20th anniversary is approaching) and two near my age were among that group.  One, Steve Blackwelder, was an ex-Marine.  I mean a REAL Marine, a tunnel rat in Viet Nam who saw death up close and personal.  Yet in ;the life after that, while he suffered and struggled in many ways, he lived out kindness and care for others in every way that he could.  He collected Beatles ties, and all the pallbearers and my associate Pastor wore one of Steve’s to the service.  The next Sunday, I told the church about Steve coming over when I moved in in 1993 to fix some plumbing issues and then setting my backyard on fire by accident when he flicked a finished—but not extinguished—cigarette through the fence.  We put it out, and now it was a laugh for us.

Then there was Bob Daily.  He was a former deacon, Sunday School teacher, you name it volunteer, the guy who went to welcome anyone to the church with a cold call.  He was my insurance agent and I ate breakfast with him weekly for 20 years, so pardon me for feeling a little vulnerable at the moment.  Read the rest of this entry

Grief Work in the Basement Garden

This blog is drawn in part from some chapters I’m writing for a forthcoming book on prayer from Insight Press.  I’ll announce it when it is available for purchase on this site.

Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, hospital waiting rooms, lying in bed when you can’t sleep.  People report God’s presence when life is unraveling, but also sitting on the porch on a quiet afternoon.  Holding a baby.  Counting blessings.  Waking up and drinking coffee.  Chance encounters.  Prison cells, torture rooms, earthquakes and financial ruin.  A meal with friends, a good book, listening to a hymn in church and singing to yourself.  God can show up anywhere, unannounced.

I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center just before worship.  I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting.  That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.By the SS

During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve

Grandpa and me, February 1956. I was the same age that my Granddaughter is now, 18 months.

string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen.  I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time, and did a wide variety of songs.  After a while, I stumbled upon an old favorite, “In the Garden.”  Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God.  It is all personal and private.

The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”  It can be seen as a rather undeveloped view of faith, infantile and self-absorbed.

But as I sang it, something remarkable happened.  I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools.  We moved from there when I has only seven.  Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.

I am from the old school.  Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate.  But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy.  I only cried at the acceptable times—maybe once per grief, or, like my father in law, who said the only time he ever cried was getting kicked in the groin in football.

The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses.  Then they perform tantrums.  They also cry watching certain movies and shows, but it always seems to be about something else.

Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and I felt the tears welling up.  It was twenty-five years after I got the news.

Not that I had failed to grieve at all.  The very first song I wrote, “The Last Freight Train,”(CLICK to listen) is where I put my loss.  I wrote it around age fifteen, and the lyrics sound like a fifteen year old, but I made it the first cut on my first CD, “permanent world of pretend,” because it was my “starting place” in songwriting.

Grief can make you crazy, or, if you handle it halfway right, it can make you well.  Up to you.  Ignore it, and you can destroy everything around you without a clue why.  Move through it and you can live for the first time like you were supposed to live.  Running away is pretty common, of course, except this is more like running away to escape a terrible tattoo.

Music is a wonderful tool to put in your “grief box.”  Since my grandfather, and my families on both sides, were singers and players, music helps me.  But if you can’t play anything except a radio, music can help.

At our church, we are blessed to have an incredible musician, Dr. Terre Johnson, who leads our music.  He is an amazing musician and minister, worked at Carnegie Hall for several years with a choral company there.  He is a terrific arranger and composer of

choral music.  He has written some astounding pieces for grief and out of grief.  One, after a tornado hit a school in Alabama years ago, has been performed at the White House, an arrangement of “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” (LISTEN-click)  He knows that the right music at the right moment can do more than soothe—it can elevate the moment above hopelessness and sorrow.

I say all of this because as a songwriter, I am always dealing with feelings of one kind or another—happiness, sadness, hope, fear, you name it.  You want to feel something in a good song, not just talk about it.  I write out of those wells of feeling.  Disconnect from them and the song never happens.

You can drown in them, of course, but that’s another blog.  The point isn’t to get stuck in sorrow, but to “man up” and stay in the room until the door opens into peace and acceptance.

I’ve met more than my share of crazy people in my line of work, and I’ve got to say many of them have some kind of terrible grief that they flounder around.  And instead of moving into it, they run the other way and make themselves and the rest of us miserable with their determination to will it out of the picture.  Too bad.  A good cry on a regular basis or a healthy helpin’ of blues, hymns, an adagio or two, and they might climb out of the tarpit.

Next time I’ll share a list of my own favorite “grieving songs” over the years.  Usually their significance has more to do with the synchronicity of occasion and song and not merely with the song itself.

Until then, don’t wait for a kick in the groin.  Grief is a powerful secret that you can’t keep down in the basement forever.  You don’t have to carry it around on your sleeve or talk to everyone.  But find your way to sit with it, feel it, and draw on your faith to outwait it.

Say Hello to Porky for Me…

In 2001 I was invited to speak at my college, which fulfilled a dream from my college days.   It was, in fact, a “two-fer,” since I was a co-presenter with Dr. Milburn Price for the Ball Institute AND spoke in the chapel.  When I was a student, I

Miss Jenkins, in my 1973 annual, in her style shamelessly stolen by Flannery O’Connor and Lauren Winner

heard speakers who impressed me mighty well—Dr. Frederick Sampson, a magnificent preacher who held us spellbound for 65 minutes one day, the great Grady Nutt, and others.  I imagined that I might someday, after graduate work, be important enough to come back and be one of those speakers.  Now it was at hand.

I sent biographical info about me ahead of time.  The conference was great, the college incredibly gracious and welcoming, and the terrain churned up wistful memories and nostalgic longing for a good and simple time in our lives.  Here is what I wrote:

As a matter of information, Vickie and I met and married while at Carson-Newman.  We lived in the little house behind the infirmary.  Our neighbor and dear friend during those lean and happy years was Mrs. Henrietta Jenkins.  You may also be interested to know that in my senior annual, while in a flippant mood, I listed my extra-curricular activities as President of Omega Omega Omega (non-existent) and captain of the Curling Team.  Another bit of CN irony is that I am now pastor to Dr. John Fincher, retired President of CN, and his dear wife Ruby.  The last time I saw Dr. Fincher before they visited our church was on the graduation stage in 1976!

My professors at Carson-Newman, especially Ray Koonce, Walter Shurden, Bill Blevins, L. Dan Taylor, J. Drury Pattison, Don Olive, and Ben Philbeck, had a happy and permanent effect on my life and thinking.  I will always be indebted to them and to Cn for shaping our lives forever.  We remember very happy days together at Carson-Newman.

Mother and Child. Miss Jenkins was always coming by.

Miss Jenkins, in fact, was most special to us.  We took her classes while there, including Shakespeare, Milton and probably something  else.  Shakespeare was 8 a.m., and Henrietta had this lilting, mellifluous voice, really quite beautiful.  It was always a little on the edge of singing it, although not like a hefty operatic diva.  More like your grandmother singing to you while you were going to sleep, which we sometimes were at 8 am.  I was married at 20, had a new baby 14 months after marriage, and working 3 jobs and going to school trying to get educated enough to come back and speak in chapel for the spellbound students.

My teachers changed my life.  Years later, even though my head nodded in “Shakespeare for Dummies,” which it should have been called, given her audience.  She would have been proud to see us in London years later laughing our heads off at the Royal Shakespeare company as they gave us “Twelfth Night” through their acting gifts, or when we visited Stratford upon Avon.

Henrietta loved her subject.  She would stop and recite poetry in the middle of a lecture from memory, long and gorgeous passages.  “By heart” was an apt discussion.  When she wandered over into the bawdier passages, she would be matter-of-fact, but would get that twinkle in her eye and blush at the same time, letting us in on something terribly funny but not for polite company.

Unidentified close friend of Miss Jenkins

But she was more.  Henrietta was our neighbor.  We lived in the little house behind the infirmary, which rented for less than $100 a month.  A few doors down lived “Miss Jenkins” as we always called her.  She would bring us things, sometimes, and we would go “hang out” with her.  She loved our new baby (who turned out to be an outstanding English major, reader and writer).  And we would talk to her poodle, Porky.

Porky was a miniature French poodle, one of the most high-strung and opinionated variety.  He was an ultra-soprano yipper whose barks  were, Miss Jenkins swore, decipherable and intelligible.  Porky could let her know what he wanted and she got it.  She told us stories about how he knew things when she was talking and would start barking to render an opinion.  Certain subjects stirred him into a frenzy, so she took to spelling in front of him and us to avoid the reaction, especially saying she was going to L-E-A-V-E to go to class.  “I tell you,” she solemnly said a hundred times in our presence, “He is as sharp…as…a TACK!”  Every day they happily walked down the street together.

We saw one another nearly every day for 2 ½ years.  She was our teacher, our friend, our neighbor.  Our first real neighbor as a couple.  The best.  And when we went back for that speaking engagement, we went to see her.  Porky had passed on by then, and she was devastated by the loss.  He was buried in the backyard of her  home, a different house from the one we knew.  We visited the gravesite and swapped stories and remembered that, yes, he was as sharp as a tack.  No doubt.

Since I am record as believing in the potential resurrection of the animal kingdom, too, I am hopeful that Porky and Miss Jenkins will be reunited, walk the streets of gold (hopefully without the inconvenience of the more unpleasant responsibilities of curbing the dog, for the former things are no more.  I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Porky for her.

But then, I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Henrietta Jenkins, either.  Kindness her way, keenness and wit her manner, love of words her craft, and a never-ending love of life and desire to learn her companions.  She was a deacon in later years, active in church, a traveler and continued to know what it means to “have a life.”  She was our teacher, our first neighbor, our friend.

So when we went back on the college’s dime, we had a grand time.  We revisited our special spot out at the lake where we would watch the “submarine races” until the security guard shined his police light into the car through the foggy windows and send us home for the night.  We sat in the parlor where we courted.  And we went to see our friend, who all those years later, looked the same as we remembered—same mind, voice, twinkly smile, and gentle intensity.

* * * * * * * * *

My chapel fantasy?  It was quite a letdown—like preaching and college lecturing turned out to be, too, by the way.   Some students were keenly listening, some in and out, heads down, some mouths open, some secretly cramming for the quiz next period they did not prepare for, and one or two reading the paper.  It dawned on me that except for Dr. Sampson and Grady Nutt, this was the fate of most chapel speakers.

Many of my teachers are physically gone—moved on in their careers to other schools, retired, or in heaven.   My religion prof, Ben Philbeck died young from a brain tumor, although he came back in a dream and blessed me late one night after I co-edited my first book.  Miss Mack, dictator of the cafeteria and force of nature, to whom so many owed so much, including us, was long gone.  I did Dr. Fincher’s funeral as his pastor, as well as his dear wife Ruby.  Life doesn’t stop.  Neither does death.

People who love you even leave eventually.   There is this mystery, though, about memory—Augustine mused over it considerably.  It seems untouched, not altered by time.  A face, a soul, a teacher and a neighbor, unchanged in us though no longer with us.  How quickly these years pass and how long they stretch out sometimes.  But, as Miss Jenkins’ longtime friend Shakespeare said,

            ‘Tis in my memory lock’d,         

            And you yourself shall keep the key of it.

Say hello to Porky for me, Miss Jenkins.  Thank you for the keys.

Distant cousin of Porky

The Four Things That Matter Most

 

Please forgive me.  I forgive you.  Thank you.  I love you.

The wonderful New Testament scholar George Beasley-Murray once wrote that what the gospel of Mark imparts to us in nine verses, the gospel of John spends five chapters.  John 13-17 is the home of some of the richest, most direct and powerful sayings of Jesus.  It is called by scholars, “The Farewell Discourse.”  Words from a dying man to his beloved friends.  He says, “I love you,” again and again in many ways.  He tells them things that need saying.  Death concentrates the mind and focuses life.

Dr. Ira Byock

My friend Paul Robertson, who is a Chaplain and CPE director in Houston, Texas, told me about a book by Dr. Ira Byock called, The Four Things That Matter Most:  A Book About Living.  Dr. Byock is a physician specializing in palliative care at Dartmouth Medical Center and a professor of palliative care at the medical school there.  Palliative care, if you don’t know the lingo, is about helping people to die with integrity and comfort, easing the journey to death.  So it may seem odd that a book that is about dying and making peace with death would have as its subtitle, “A Book About Living.”

He says that these are the “four things” that matter most, and that before we can die, or live for that matter, we must say them to the people who matter to us the most.  This is a wonderful book, one I recommend you read.  It’s short, beautiful and on target.  Here are his four things:

 

 

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

I love you.

Some thoughts from Dr. Byock that spoke to me:

“I’ve learned from my patients and their families about the painful regret that comes from not speaking these most basic feelings. Again and again, I’ve witnessed the value of stating the obvious. When you love someone, it is never too soon to say, “I love you,” or premature to say, “Thank you,” “I forgive you,” or “Will you please forgive me?” When there is nothing of profound importance left unsaid, relationships tend to take on an aspect of celebration, as they should.”

 “When you love someone, it is never too soon to say, “I love you,” or premature to say, “Thank you,” “I forgive you,” or “Will you please forgive me?” When there is nothing of profound importance left unsaid, relationships tend to take on an aspect of celebration, as they should.”

“I also encourage them to say good-bye. ..The word good-bye derives from “God be with you,” a blessing that was traditionally given at parting and, in some churches”

During Holy Week, we focus on an intense experience of saying goodbye.  Grief is a very perilous and important experience in every way. When we grieve, we don’t get our way.  When we fail to grieve, we don’t really live.

This week, liturgically, we start moving toward some plain speaking, gospel wise.  Forgiveness is costly.  Love wins, death loses, but not without shedding blood and dying.    Commitments:  simple, plain.  Nothing complicated, but not easy.  And you need to say some things that seem simple, but are really doors into the rich treasures of the heart.

I need forgiveness. 

I know you love me, God.

I love you. 

Thank you for what you’ve done. 

Here I am.

The extraordinary center of our gospel may well be in 2 Corinthians 5 when Paul says

19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

Far more of our lives are engaged with these two verses than almost anything else other than eating, sleeping and breathing–reconciling ourselves to life, God, our histories, our destiny, limits, and, finally, one another.  “Be reconciled” is a wonderful word for us this week.  Simple words.

 

For more about Ira Byock’s book, click the image below.