When a Shepherd Plays the Trumpet

As he walked towards the door, he no doubt was heading to other important events in his day. But when my three-year-old daughter showed interest in his trumpet case, he set everything down immediately. Kneeling beside her, he opened the case and showed her how to play the trumpet.


She laughed as he made funny sounds on the horn. Then my daughter knelt, too, as he taught her more about music. They delighted in each other’s joy.

IMG_6269It didn’t matter that he was on his way home. It didn’t matter that she was only three. He took time to share his passion for music. He took time to share his life. And I know he gave of his time again and again.

That man was John Verkade. John died last week, and I miss him.

In 1960, John was among a small group of people who founded Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Ames, Iowa.   Over the next five decades, John showed love and grace to the many people who passed through Trinity’s doors.

John was also a world-renowned chemist, passionate in his research and teaching. He published 5 books, over 400 papers, and secured 21 patents for his work. He traveled the globe presenting his research. Still, when talking with John, you had the feeling he had nothing more important to do at that moment than be with you.  My daughter felt that way when he played the trumpet for her.   And years later when she learned more about the piano.

John played the piano and organ in our church.   Many times he would be the one to make sure the piano humidifier had the right level of water.

When my daughter was five, she started to notice John carrying around a plastic green water can you might more likely see in the garden.  She asked what he was doing.  “Watering the piano!” John said with a twinkle in his eye.  Her five-year-old eyes got big as she looked up at him with uncertainty. John took her by the hand and taught her how and why to water the piano.P1080192

Other days my daughter liked to watch John play the organ. She found a cozy spot where she could see his hands and feet make music.


Soon my daughter started to play the piano at church, too.   And John was one of the people cheering her on.


John also loved telling stories. He often shared a lesson at our church’s Vacation Bible School. He would have a great interpretation of the story and kids loved listening. When telling stories, he’d sometimes dress as a shepherd, which was fitting given how he lived his life tending to people.


Adults loved to hear his stories and jokes, too.   John taught many classes at church helping us understand the intersections of religion and science.  Or lessons simply about life.

My first in-depth conversation with John happened years before my daughter was born. When my husband and I were on a tough road after our first baby was stillborn, John was one of the people walking with us. He shared his own experiences with grief. He held our son in his memory for years, offering gentle encouragement along the way.

And now I will hold John in my memory. We will remember John in the music and in the church that he helped build. We will work to share his love to the people who keep going through those doors.


I can see John now, gathering a group of listeners as he tells his stories and plays the trumpet.

John Verkade, 1935-2016


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A Thousand Ways in Life and Death

Remembering Don Schweingruber on his birthday.

_DSC0842In a thousand different ways, I learn how you died.

When I see a perfect gift for you and know I’ll never watch you open another present.

When I am in the grocery store remembering our shopping trips and knowing we will never cook together again.

It takes time for our multiple levels of sensory to learn that someone has died. We experience sights, sounds, memories, and other sensations that suddenly shock with a new discovery of what we lost. I keep learning this about you, too.

When I struggle with my writing and realize a short time ago I would have called you. Now I can’t.

When driving by a lake you loved and thinking we will never have another chance to walk around it together.

The more interaction you have with someone, the longer it can take to understand the many different things that you’ve lost after they died. I know this is true for your loving family and friends, too.

When I sit by a fire and realize we will never again talk deeply in the glow of that light.

When I see a picture of you with my girls and feel that punch to the gut because I will not see them in your arms again.

It can feel like a thousand little cuts that hit unpredictably as we learn to live with loss. It can be the seemingly mundane things in life that hurt so unexpectedly when they are gone. The small moments are building blocks for security and love. You were good with those building blocks.

When I want to share a story with you and remember I can’t.

When I look at the calendar and think we won’t sit on the porch together this summer.

I continue to discover what it means that that you are no longer living with us.

When I see a deck of cards and realize we’ll never again smile at your gentle taunts.

When your granddaughters say something funny and my heart drops knowing we will not hear your wonderful laugh.

But, I am also gaining moments when I can clearly see you living IN us.  

When my daughter plays a practical joke, I see your gentle smile and your mischievous spark in her eyes.

When I am frustrated at something, I hear your calm and encouraging voice in my head. I still know your words. Your ways.

We can see colors of how you lived threaded through the tapestry of your family and friends. We see you in the lives you touched and the joy you shared.

When we play family games, I hear your voice in the sarcastic comments and good-natured competition. I see your love for the game. I see your appreciation for anyone willing to play in the game.

When my husband and the rest of your family watch the Pirates and Steelers, I see your love for Pittsburgh.

 In time, we find courage to look into the world and dare to see the beauty of your life still shining through even as we wipe away tears.

When my mother-in-law, your lovely wife, shows grace and courage in making chocolate chip cookies to share with others in your honor. And laughing at her stories of the things that go wrong in making the cookies as she proclaims, “That never happened to Don!”   I see you there, too. Your kindness and humor and generosity.

When I hear my daughters talk about listening to friends who struggle, I see your compassion and grace.

In a thousand different ways, I learn how you loved.

When I think of your sons and daughters-in-law all working in professions helping people, I see your model of giving and teaching.

When I hear my daughters play the piano, I see your mom’s fingers moving over the keys and know your link to their past. I feel your love for music.

I think about how you lived your faith in both the bounty of life and the valley of death. We still have your values, your words of wisdom, your firm hope.

When we sing Amazing Grace, I feel your faith lived fully.

 When I see the picture of Jesus holding a lamb, I hear your voice assuring us that God holds you. And us.

My sweet father-in-law and friend, I thank God for your life. Until we meet again, we will carry you with us in how we live and love.   We will see you in each other.

In a thousand different ways, I learn how you lived.






Posted in Death, Grief, Inspiration, Joy | 5 Comments

Why We Need to Move Beyond the Idea of Closure

Do you tell others to find closure?

Or do you think something is wrong with you because there seems to be no closure after a loss?

Stop worrying about closure.   We don’t need closure to heal.

Closure continues to be a popular concept in our culture.   However, it is just a word we’ve made up to talk about loss.   Sadly, the illusive search for closure often does more harm than good. When people hear the word “closure,” they often hear, “You’re telling me I need to end my grieving.”

Recently I had an opportunity to talk with Amiel Handelsman on an episode of The Amiel Show.   To hear more about the problematic use of closure and alternative ways to talk about grief, listen to our talk: Episode 40: Nancy Berns On Moving Beyond Closure.

So if we stop pushing closure, how do we help? Listen. And listen more.   For an enriching discussion about these issues, please join the conversation.

Here are highlights marked at particular minutes if you want to skip ahead to a specific topic.

  • 13:00  Why closure became popular in the 1990s
  • 16:00  Rituals help us feel part of something bigger
  • 20:00  The experience of infant loss
  • 25:00  Conversations Nancy had about the loss of her son, Zachariah
  • 28:00  Knowing who you feel safe sharing with
  • 33:00  Small acts of kindness
  • 38:45  Society’s expectations of how men and women should grieve
  • 43:00  Being part of someone’s death or burial

Please share with others, too, who may need some extra support in their life journey.   Another resource on this topic is my TEDx talk Beyond Closure: The Space between Joy and Grief.

For another article on closure as it relates to relationships, check out Bad Breakup? How to Get Beyond Closure

As you learn to live with loss, or comfort others, remember you are not alone.




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Finding Joy in Ordinary Moments

Today is leap day. As with many occasions, there are social media and marketing attempts to make your leap day extra special.

What can you do in one day? Don’t waste your extra 24 hours!

I’m all for making the most of every day.   However, I don’t like the pressure of these “special days.” Yes, it is fun to do special things on leap day, but in our culture it seems we more often stress the extraordinary moments over joy in the ordinary.

And there is nothing ordinary about joy in ordinary moments. People who have experienced the death of a close friend or family member deeply understand the joy of ordinary moments.

Too often we miss the beauty of ordinary until it is gone.   And there is a lot of wonderful things to appreciate in the everyday. Take time to just appreciate the beauty in life. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until everything is going well before you find joy in the moments. Don’t wait for a special occasion. Don’t wait for everything to be in order. Don’t wait for all your pain to be healed.



Our days are numbered and if leap day helps us to think about the precious nature of time, then that’s great. Obviously that is a preferred way to learn the value of time rather than waiting until you or a loved one is facing death.

We will all face the pain of loss. We can use our grief and the lessons learned through loss to live more courageously and intentionally each day.   That is why I encourage people to take hope in knowing you can carry grief and joy together.

We cannot afford to wait until everything in life is tidy before appreciating the joy in ordinary moments.   Give thanks for what you have even as you grieve for what you are missing. Live fully by finding joy in the ordinary moments.

Posted in Grief, Inspiration, Joy | Leave a comment

A Portrait of Dad

Today’s is my father’s 8oth birthday!  It can be hard to put into words the legacy of a person.  I wrote this poem as an attempt to capture what he means to our family.

A Portrait of Dad
For David Berns

A baby in his arms, a child on a knee,
His favorite place is with family.
Whether at work or play or song,
In his fold, we want to belong.

Toys, pranks, and jokes at play,
A kid at heart, he will always stay.
Never too silly, a little bit ornery,
On his team, we want to be.

Others give him what went wrong,
So he can fix it firm and strong.
To watch him work tool in hand,
By his side, we want to stand.

Hands deep in soil to plant a seed,
Feet quick to neighbors still in need.
Harvest to others he will bestow,
Amid his love, we want to grow.

A gentle spirit lights his face,
Peacemaker, extravagant in grace.
Roots of wisdom in our family tree,
Through his eyes, we want to see.

Tenderly he carries a share of sorrow,
Assured God holds our every tomorrow.
What once was lost, we soon will receive,
As his faith, we want to believe.

A breath of prayer from the start,
Praise from his lips and joy in his heart.
A faith in God will he simply bring,
In his harmony, we want to sing.

Secure in Christ’s victory foretold,
With faithful hope, he lets life unfold.
His trust in God will never hollow,
So in his steps, we want to follow.

Nancy Berns
December 27, 2015
Happy Birthday Dad!!!






Posted in Faith, Helping Others, Inspiration | 2 Comments

Why Keeping Problems Secret Only Makes Them Worse

Is this you sometimes?

You hold it all together until the last person is out of the house and then you break down crying.   Life is too hard.   You think, “How can everyone else be doing so well but I am failing? What is wrong with me?”

Or you get ready for work and show up determined to have a good day. Your annoying colleague punches all the wrong buttons and you slump at your desk the rest of the day unable to really focus. You snap at others. You wonder why everyone else is successful while you are struggling.

Or you put on a brave smile and find the energy to get your kids ready for school.   You drop them off at school and then find all your energy goes with them as they skip to their classroom. You think, “How does everyone else stay so focused and happy? Why am I so alone?”

Here’s the deal.   You are not alone.   People all around you think these thoughts and feel like giving up.   Others that smile at you in public later go home and sit in a chair to cry. Or go back to bed.   Or yell at others.

Life can be hard.   We may be grieving for loved ones who died. We may be struggling in a marriage. We may be missing children who are off doing their own things. We may be torn by hurtful comments from people we thought were friends. We may be facing a serious illness.   We may be worried about family members who are destroying their lives. We may be struggling to be patient with work colleagues who make lives miserable and there is nothing to be done about it.

The list goes on.   No wonder we get down.

We cannot avoid having trials in life. What we can do is learn to reach out to at least one other person so we do not feel so alone.

When we keep our pain and grief tapped down, it will seep out the cracks in ways we don’t always recognize. It helps to have a friend or support person who will listen.   You don’t need everyone to understand, but one person listening can do wonders.

When we feel shame or guilt, it helps to share thoughts with another person. Keeping our shame and doubts hidden only allows them to grow. By voicing those thoughts or asking questions about why you are the only one struggling, you can get them into the light of day and realize that they are less powerful when not hidden in the dark.   When you have the right person to share those struggles, you often learn that he or she also has trials.   We connect and realize that we are not the only ones hurting.   This person may be a friend, family member, clergy member, counselor, co-worker, or support group person.

Finding a good person to confide in can be hard.   Please keep trying.   Be willing to show some vulnerability to others. You may be surprised to learn that they too need a friend. And if you try reaching out to people only to be hurt by them, understand they may be hurting even deeper than you and not able to connect at that level. Protect yourself from them in the future, but don’t give up on humanity.

Reach out to people in person and not just on social media.  You might also connect with people through helping others in difficult situations.  You don’t even need to share your specific struggles.  By helping others, we can feel better about our situations.

Connecting with others will not magically take away all your problems.  They are small steps.  They are moments to help us catch our breath.   And even though it is hard to believe, those people next to you who seem so confident and happy need others too.   They also have doubts and trials.

You are not alone.   And you have gifts and support to share with others too.  Take a chance and reach out to others.




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Living Life while Facing Death

Daniel greatly admired his wife.    He described her as a wonderful role model for people.  She modeled how to live life and how to face death.

Daniel said his wife wanted to capture life and keep living even as she faced cancer.   After several years of living with cancer and enduring many medical procedures, they discovered her treatment options were running out.

In August, Helen and Daniel knew she would die before Christmas.  They needed to tell their children.  Helen wanted to drive to their colleges rather than make a phone call.   And as typical of Helen, she wanted to combine fun in this trip—a trip that centered around informing her son she was dying.   “You have to live,” she would say.

Daniel recalls the trip to see their son.   “So we drove down to Arkansas, where Brian was, to tell him she’s dying.  And then we go on a 14 mile canoe trip.  It was just a day trip. I mean, everything was great. Everything went fine. Sort of.  We get in the canoe and we promptly fall out.”

Daniel said they all laughed.

Daniel explained more,  “Brian’s holding onto a branch and we try to hold on and we all just go in the drink. You know, we had a good time. Obviously, it was sad, but, you know, we got on with life.”

You can carry joy and grief together.  But you can carry other complicated emotions together too.

You can have anger or fear, but also carry love and grace.  You can offer mercy to others even as you hurt. You can love others even as they don’t understand.  You can have faith even if angry with God.  Many carry a hope in eternal life through their faith while living with despair on earth.

Because we carry complicated, and sometimes contradictory emotions, it does not make us insincere.  It makes us human.

There will be times when joy fills up your day and there is little to no grief.  And sometimes, it may be the grief that takes up all the space.   We grow from both joy and grief, and we can learn to carry them together.

We do not have to wrap up all the pain in our life before we can have joy again.  It is freedom to know that you don’t need closure to heal.  It is freedom to know that you can find joy and love even while sad.

Posted in Death, Faith, Grief, Joy | Leave a comment

C.O.P.S.: Living After a Police Officer Dies

Walking into the large reception area, one might initially think there were many families on vacation. People talking and laughing in small groups with children darting around big islands holding the breakfast spread.

If you look closer, you’ll see some of them wiping away tears. You’ll see the exhausted look of fresh grief on many faces. For others, eyes shine with appreciation of being among family—not related by blood but related by blood lost.

Observe the clothing. You’ll notice many shirts with memorial messages such as “Some people wait a lifetime to meet their hero. Mine raised me.” Or “My brother’s life mattered.”   Some shirts include favorite Bible verses.  Looking closer, you’ll see many people wearing buttons with pictures of smiling police officers.

FullSizeRenderIn the hall is a memory board filled with tangible signs of heartache. The messages written by children seem to jump out the most.

“I love you Dad and miss you.”

“I will never forget you mom! I love you with all my heart!!”

“I wish you were here to see my accomplishments.”  

“I love you PawPaw.”

Some of the messages starkly remind us of relationships that are affected for generations after death.

“I miss you Grandad even though I never met you.” 

“I wish you could see your grandchildren you have.”

This is the annual gathering of C.O.P.S.: Concerns of Police Survivors.   Families, friend and co-workers of police officers who have died come together to support each other during National Police Week in Washington D.C.   The C.O.P.S. organizers work tirelessly to provide sessions for the different groups of survivors: children, adult children, parents, spouses, siblings, co-workers, and in-laws. They have events through the year in other locations, too.

Most of the people there had a police officer die in the past 12 months.   But some of them are returning to the conference years later.   One woman had a brother killed 40 years ago, which she shared with tears. Several people told me they are returning to the conference over 10 years since their loved one died primarily to support the new survivors. Yet, each of them also said they were greatly touched by the conference in ways not anticipated.

I had the honor of giving a keynote address for their first day of the conference. The families can spend up to a week there participating in various activities, candlelight vigils, and memorial services along with the support sessions.

My favorite part of being at the conference was talking with survivors. Their stories of heartache, courage, and hope never cease to amaze. It can be overwhelming to look at a room of over 800 people and know that each of them carries a tragic story.   But you need to know that they have beauty in their stories, too.

My talk centered on how to carry joy and grief together—assuring them that they did not need “closure” to heal. That message resonates with survivors. They want to talk about their loved ones. They need to have time and freedom to grieve. They are capable of laughing and having joy, but they also need the space to be in pain. Some of them are angry and need a place to vent. Some want to share how God is faithful to them in their grief.  They have stories to share.

The Director of the FBI and the Director of the U.S. Marshals Service both gave moving tributes to the families. The survivors appreciated the leaders of these law enforcement agencies reaching out to them. But I sensed that for many survivors, what they wanted even more was for a greater percentage of “everyday people” in their lives to walk the long road with them.

To be fair, many of them do have that kind of support, or at least have one or two people who provide that long-term encouragement. But we can do better. As one survivor said, “It’s like everyone needs sensitivity training. They shouldn’t ask me how I feel if they are not willing to hear me out.” One of the hardest things to hear is people talk about how friends and family no longer want to listen to them. Sometimes even just days or weeks after a death, they are told to “move on.”

Here is a brief thought on how to support those grieving. Understand it is not your place to take away their pain. Don’t try to fix anything. I understand people worry about not knowing what to say.   Take the pressure off yourselves regarding your vocabulary because there are no “right words” to make it better. Survivors don’t want you to talk them into feeling better. They want people to be present in their pain. Listen without trying to use words to make them change how they feel. Listen without many words at all. Many people feel better by having a chance to talk and share their journey.

It takes time. And there is no “going back to normal” for them. However, there is hope and healing as they learn to live with loss. And there is beauty, faith, hope, and strength in that journey. Speaking of beauty, most of the leaders in this organization are returning survivors—mothers, co-workers, fathers, spouses, adult children, siblings—who now light the way for newly bereaved families.

Thank you to the C.O.P.S. organization for allowing me to join you. What an amazing amount of support you give to thousands of families around the nation. I’m sorry so many need you, but I’m thankful you are reaching out.



Posted in Death, Grief, Helping Others, Joy, Victims of Crime | 10 Comments

Two Things Children Should Know about Grief

Talking to my girls about death and loss is hard. I do not want them to face deep pain, but I know they will.   They have already faced some losses, but I know harder grief is coming. Just like I know painful loss is coming for everyone reading this. And some of you have already faced tremendous grief.   Life is full of losses.

In a recent conversation with my children, I said there were two things I wanted them to remember about grief.   First, you are not alone. And second, you can carry joy and grief together.

You are not alone. There will be other people who share your pain. You are not the only one going through the heartache. No one will have the perfect understanding of what you are feeling, but there will be others who also miss the person or thing you are grieving. Do not feel like you are the only person carrying such pain. You can share it with others. That does not mean you need to grieve like others do. We each love in our own ways, and therefore our grief is also unique.

Grieving individually and feeling alone are two different things. Feeling alone with the pain can be frightening. Let children (and adults) know they can ask questions or share their feelings. Children may seem like they are doing okay but actually have many questions. Days, weeks, months, even years after a particularly deep loss, find a way to raise the subject. Let them know it is okay to talk about a loved one who died. Let them know it is okay to still miss that person. Let them know they are not alone.

You can carry joy and grief together. When you are really sad and deep in grief, know that you can also have joy. The joy may not come right away. Or maybe it will. Either way is okay. Maybe you’ll be sad, and then you’ll suddenly laugh at something you see or hear.   That’s okay. Do not feel bad if you are sad and then laugh.   Or you may be having a good time, and then you suddenly feel very sad.   That’s okay, too. We can carry multiple emotions.

Do not think you have to have all the pain go away before you can have fun or even just go about your ordinary routine. You are not being disloyal to the person you miss if you are experiencing joy. We can carry the joy and grief as we learn to live with loss.

There are other things I want them to know about grief, and we talk about a lot more. But these two points provide a good starting place for finding freedom to grieve.

Posted in Children's Grief, Grief, Parenting | 2 Comments

Good Friday, Good Grief

A Good Friday tenebrae service is one of my favorite times in church. In Latin “tenebrae” means shadows or darkness in Latin.   In a tenebrae service, there is a gradual extinguishing of candles while reflecting on the death of Jesus.

For Christians, the Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter services are holy and foundational to their faith. In addition, the space for grief is another reason I love the tenebrae service. The songs and scripture reflect grieving and lamenting. Too often, church services or conversations with Christians do not give enough time for expressions of pain, loss, and grief. We want to rush to the happy stuff. We want to convince ourselves and others that life is all good. But life can be really hard.

I’m not suggesting that we should only focus on our grief during Good Friday. However, it is part of a person’s healing journey to take time to reflect on death and loss as part of life.

_DSC0949Don’t get me wrong. I love Easter, too.   The celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The hope and joy that sounds out with trumpets.   But it is important to remember Good Friday before getting to Easter.   As a foundation in the Christian faith, Easter only comes because of Christ’s death.

In our grieving journeys, it is important to leave room for the pain and grief. That is true when helping others, too.   Don’t rush people to joy and hope without giving them space to express the anguish.

If you are able to find a tenebrae service in your area, try going. Then follow up with an Easter that brings hope. There is space for both joy and grief.    May you find peace during this Holy Week and Easter.

Posted in Faith, Grief, Holidays and Birthdays, Joy | 2 Comments