In honor of grieving dads, we offer these thoughts from bereaved dad of Corey and our client, David Van Hook. Thank you for sharing this David and Corey.
What is Selah Carefarm to me, as a father, as a grieving father?
My answer? Whatever I need it to be.
Who Am I?
No, I am not that eternal “the glass is half full” optimist full of hope and white light.
Six years after I lost my son, I was diagnosed with incurable lymphoma. While Selah Carefarm is not focused on handling the 20% of the issues in my life revolving around cancer, they are in fact set up to help me with the 80% of my life that is directly affected by the loss of Corey. That’s my way of coping. I still try and tell myself that only 80% of my life is affected by the loss of my son.
My Experience of at Selah Carefarm
I needed a creek with fish in it which is hard to find anywhere in Arizona.
Corey’s middle name is Ray after the grandfather who used to take me fishing as a kid. I was his favorite, Grandpa Virgil Ray and I used to fish on the Mackinaw River, saving big catfish to put in his pond: A safe place to be and the sights and sounds of the water remind me of what’s needed for life. The running water reminds me of just how powerful and even destructive something so necessary can become.
I needed some rest and a place to let my guard down if only for a moment. And I needed to feel protected.
Enter Percy, one of the Selah Carefarm dogs, stage left.
While sitting in the shade of the gazebo, just worn-down, Percy came out checked on me and then sat at attention at the entrance to the gazebo standing guard until I was ready to leave. So, I rested while an animal realized I needed him. Like Percy, I am one of the carefarm’s rescues. I used to struggle with how to even sign emails to my friends from the carefarm, but I have settled on my signature being: “One of the Rescued”.
Finding my Needs
I needed to talk.
Let’s face it, when a tragedy strikes it seems that some of the most ignorant or hurtful things to say seem boil to the surface for most people. Or maybe they launch into their personal dissertation of the meaning of life and death and why God himself does things like this to people and families like me, and that time will heal all wounds and with enough time this too shall pass.
I didn’t need to talk about things. I needed the things I wanted to say to be heard.
Not processed, not deciphered for quality and meaning, not judged for whether I am crazy or not whether I am “stable”. What kind of quality and meaning am I supposed to find in the death of my child? What is sane or stable about my child’s death?
No, I didn’t need to talk. I needed to be heard. I needed what I said and what I felt and what I thought to be documented in the mind of another human being and for that to be acknowledged with out judgment.
That happens on the carefarm. On one visit in two days, I talked for more than six hours. Also, between Corey’s death and four years of chemo and a bone marrow transplant, I have experienced a fair amount of both physical and emotional pain. That process of being heard, at the care farm created a place for me to lay down that pain, even if only for a few hours. It was gone for a time.
What I Learned
I had heard cancer was a great equalizer. Not true. Losing a child is an equalizer. After a couple of visits to the care farm, I developed a better understanding of the human desire to explain, in dramatic terms, the depth of despair and pain that each of us has endured and survived. While circumstances can vary widely and may have some bearing on how long it will take us to learn to cope, or what type of help works for each person, the experience of losing a child is out of sync with everything in the universe.
Everyone agrees a parent should not ever have to bury a child. We don’t have to accept anything less. We can self-medicate with drugs legal or illegal. But, nothing changes the pain of a child’s death, really. A loss like this is something that demands to be felt. And those feelings of loss, when processed, can bring us closer to others who, too, have had their own losses.
Space for it All
There are intensely spiritual aspects of the carefarm that elude description. The carefarm respects all different traditions, and even no tradition, and there are a number of quotes from people with strange names I can’t pronounce and a couple of people whom I’ve met. It is not about the practice of religion or lack thereof. If a person needs faith traditions to help, there is room for that there. If a person is angry at faith traditions there is also room for that. There is space for it all.
Connection and Compassion: Mutual rescuing
There have been times when I didn’t think I could endure life, when I thought I couldn’t recover from this. I felt beaten, battered, and just worn out. For me, the carefarm was the place I needed to be for connection and compassion.
Chemakoh, or Chimmi as I call him, too was battered, beaten, and left for dead. His skin had been ripped to shreds from beating and carrying heavy loads. The bones of his spine were visible in spots. He is now one of the rescues at the carefarm. Every time I see Dr Jo’s face when she talks about him, only one question arises: “Who rescued who?” That’s when I give Chimmi an extra carrot and thank him for hanging on through such painful and difficult circumstances until Doc was ready to be rescued.
There is a mutuality in helping others.
I have rambled on like a preacher to say this: I have seen some dark days in my life and watched others enduring their own personal nightmares, too. But I don’t want to imagine anything worse than the loss of Corey.
The carefarm is a place where people are rescued, some are rescued by the people, some by the animals, and some are rescued by the place. For me it was all three. This carefarm is a place where people have cried endless tears, faced the darkness, and endured grief. Then, those same people have made a decision to hold the hands of others on the same journey and walk with them.
It is a place where the price for sacredness has been paid by something we all agree should never happen. In order to survive - and one day even thrive- in times of trauma and grief, we need to belong to a community, to have a place, where we have been found even if we weren’t lost.
When Corey died, my connection to all things was stressed. I have felt like I couldn’t breathe because of the weight of the burdens I carried. The carefarm is where I got to lay down some of that weight, if only for a moment; a place where I experienced peace and could imagine and dream about Corey again. It is a place where, if is there is an afterlife, I could imagine Corey taking care of the other younger kids there just like he did for his younger brother and sister when he was on this side.
The Wisdom of Nature
We live in a world where the sacred is sometimes destroyed by others, often with purposeful malice. I would like to think that if enough people knew deep grief and pain, they would treat each other better. Yet the world does not allow people to talk about their grief and pain: we still can’t seem to summon up the courage to be empathic and compassionate enough to talk about grief. At the carefarm, that courage exists.
It starts with Oak Creek: It has the courage to run through the high desert of Arizona and bring life to all that will visit its curves and bends to be refreshed in spite of the intense desert sun. The courage exists in the animals that hung on long enough to be rescued and, once they were, they learned it was safe to open their hearts to trust people. They even slowly learned to trust those who looked and smelled a lot like the ones who had tortured them or left them for dead.
And these courageous animals give as much as they receive. The interns and grad students advance those deep connections through their compassion and tenderness for all who come and all who live there. What does it take to sign up to work with such deep and unrelenting grief? Then there is Doctor Jo. Where does her capacity for what she does come from? She is surrounded by the memories of a lot of lost children. She hears the stories and holds the sacred space for others to grieve. That’s why I say Chimmi hung on just long enough to rescue Doc. He helps her too.
I have a spot I can lay in at the carefarm where I close my eyes and remember laying on the kitchen floor when my kids were young and they would come and lay beside me. We would be still for a minute and just stare at the ceiling. Then we would break like a football team from a huddle and it would be on all the catching up from me being away on a work trip.
So, every time I leave that sacred place, I leave a part of me and Corey there. I even left a painted rock as my personal marker for that sacred time and place.
The Selah Carefarm is a place where I remember what it is like to be a real human being again. Where I learn to mourn and at the same time connect or reconnect, and to be rescued or to rescue. We are all in this together and none of us make it out alive. When the worst that life can give us happens, this carefarm is a sacred place carved out in a world of selfishness and fear for us to be rescued from unimaginable tragedy.
One of the Rescued,
Dave Van Hook, Papa to Corey