The Slap in the Face

slap in the face 3Recently I did something I’ve never done before – I flew across country to attend a memorial service.  In this case, it was for a close friend – Tim Holden – who at the peak of health, energy and vitality (age 64) was suddenly and tragically killed in a bicycle accident. His death was a shock not only to his family, to me, and to those who knew him, but also to the community of Bethesda Md. Tim and I had served together several times over the years in our careers in the SEAL Teams, and I not only respected and admired him, I considered him a close friend. Tim and I had shared things with each other about ourselves that men don’t often share.  So for once, I rearranged my schedule, got on an airplane and flew out to attend a memorial service.

This is not something I’ve ever been inclined to do in the past – even for people I have known pretty well. Going to a funeral or memorial service is a hassle – the deceased certainly won’t miss me; friends and family probably won’t either.  Hey, I’m a busy guy with a lot on my plate!  I’ve just never made it a priority to take a day, or in this case several days out of my schedule for something like this – in spite of Yogi Berra’s warning: “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t go to yours.”   Yeah – got it, and I’m Ok with that.

But I went to Tim’s service. And I’ve recently attended two other memorial services:  For Bill Sturgeon, a long-time and very well respected member of my Rotary Club, and Pete Riddle, a frogman from the old days, and highly respected member of several circles of friends I have. I did not know Pete or Bill very well (my fault, my loss.)  After attending Tim’s, Pete’s and Bill’s memorial services, I’ve changed my mind about funerals/memorial services.  Why?

First, a memorial service honors and celebrates the good in a life that is no more, and assures family and close friends that their loved one’s life mattered.  It is what a good community does.  I do believe that is important, and I should contribute. None of us want to be Eleanor Rigby, who “…died in the church and was buried along with her name.   Nobody came.” (Lennon/McCartney)

But I have realized that there is another very good reason to attend memorial services: It’s good for me.

A memorial service is a very good time to stop and reflect. I learn things about these people I wish I’d known while they were alive.  I inevitably ask myself: What will they say about me when I’m gone?  At Bill Sturgeon’s service, the presiding minister noted that, in addition to honoring Bill’s life, an important part of his job that day was (metaphorically speaking) to slap us all in the face  – to get our attention – to remind us that someday, sooner than we realize, it will be our turn.   Are we REALLY aware of that?  Or do we prefer to pretend that we have all the time in the world?

As I sat at Tim’s service, I was infused with a sense of peace. I don’t go to church and I am not religious. But that church, that service, that experience broke through my shell.  Like Tim, I am a healthy, relatively fit, happy, and comfortable retired SEAL and cyclist, and it could just as easily have been me in the casket in front of the alter.  In that church, I felt the love, the sense of community among Tim’s many friends, family and admirers.  I shared the sadness and loss that his family and those closest to him felt.  I felt the comfort of the legacy of Tim’s life, that though cut short, was very well lived.  And the penetrating question – the slap in the face – How am I doing?

I was reminded of David Brooks’ great Ted Talk in which he argues that most of us are focused on trying to prepare a great resume, while instead, we should be striving live such that we deserve a great eulogy.

I was also reminded of St Augustine guidance that we should be ready to die at any moment. At Tim’s service, the pastor noted that Tim had stated several weeks or months prior to his death, that he was prepared whenever his time came.  And of course, I asked myself:  Am I ready?  I suspect everyone attending asked themselves the same question.  Or at least they should have. Tim again, leading by example.

The Dalai Lama meditates on his own death daily – in order that he can fully appreciate the day he has in front of him, knowing that this life is fragile, each day is a gift, and what we have will not last. We are here just for a short while.   All this is temporary. Memorial services remind us of that – or at least should.

As inconvenient, and sometimes uncomfortable as funerals and memorial services can be, it is important to step away from the false urgencies of daily life to think about the reality we all “know” – that the life we are living today will not last.

Death can ambush us when we least expect it, as it did my good friend Tim Holden. Or it can openly and noisily approach us, as it did Pete Riddle and Bill Sturgeon, whose bodies slowly but quite perceptibly broke down over time – which indeed is happening to all of us, perceptibly or not.

Gen Bill Garrison once told a group I was in: “The number of people who attend your funeral will be weather dependent.”  It was funny, but it is true.  When our time is up, people will be busy and distracted, and our memorial service/funeral will be inconvenient.  When it’s our turn, we will be mourned by few, and then, only for a while.  Life will go on.  Perhaps we take ourselves and our problems too seriously…

I have the program from Tim Holden’s funeral mass on my desk. It’s still hard for me to grasp that he’s no longer with us – it still seems I should be able to just call him on the phone or send him an email.  I have the program from Pete Riddle’s celebration of life as well – I was so humbled by his amazing life.  I’m so glad I attended their memorial services, to honor them and their families, and also, because I now know –  I needed that “slap in the face.”

35 thoughts on “The Slap in the Face

    • Thanks – I suspect this is Roger- since I have a separate reply from Gret. This is one of the few that doesn’t have your fingerprints on it – but I considered sending it to you for your expert editing. Glad it passed muster without a pre-inspection! Bob

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  1. Bob, I’m with you in terms of after I’m gone I don’t expect anything from others. I don’t think about a funeral. I just think about living today. I just think about helping others live today. I appreciate you sharing your experience, which reminds us to look beyond the day’s urgencies to our life’s meaning. Which I’m actually reflecting on right now, this week. I’m even getting specific, and asking myself what I really want, in my life, in my day. As I get clear about what really matters to me, I’m asking for it. I’m asking in a spiritual way, and I’m asking in a pragmatic way from people and situations. I’m creating space for it, rearranging my life around it. I’m willing to adjust my old habits to make room for it. I’m creating an environment which will nurture it. This is my focus this week, and your post is really in line with what I’ve been considering. Thank you.

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  2. Hi Bob,

    Thank you for this post. It is a great message.

    One month ago I flew to St. Pete Florida to bury the third to pass too soon in a close circle of friends. Jon died of a heart attack while mountain biking. He served his country and his wife (43) and two boys (6 and 11) were very honored to have so many pay their respects to honor his life and comfort them. They were greeted by a two hour line of guests and every one was a part of the testimony to a life lived with integrity. I assure you that 11 year old boy will not remember the names of the men who folded the flag, but he will forever know his father was a good man who was respected and that will be a moment he can remember when he is challenged. In the month since, I have been asked to help his widow with a number of financial matters related to the business they owned and getting the right team near her to help her going forward. It is our duty to our close friends who pass.

    Basketball Coach Tom Izzo once said “Weddings sometimes, funerals always.”
    That is a code we should all follow.

    Thanks again, Bob.

    Sorry for your loss,

    Dan

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    • Great story Dan – and thank you for sharing. It reinforces that point about a community gathers around the survivors when a loved one is lost, to reinforce and strengthen the community. Strong communities do that. That scene at the conclusion of Act of Valor, with the SEALs pounding their tridents into the casket of the fellow who represented Michael Monsoor was really powerful – and also a reflection of one of the strengths of the SEAL community. I like the quote: Weddings sometimes, Funerals always. Bob

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  3. Bob, excellent thoughts. I too do a fair bit of reflecting at funerals and must admit, it was something to see Tim’s daughters try and deal with the suddenness of his death. One thing I would add is what his brother’s mentioned, he always tried to end their conversation with I love you. We too often, especially men, are reluctant to say those words, I love you or show emotion. I learned long ago, you tell the living you love them and if the time and circumstances work out, like the weather, you attend a funeral or burial. While I agree you live every moment to the fullest, you also realize that like Tim, friends and family can be taken away without warning and it’s best to let those you love, know it.

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    • Thanks Otto – I recall that – one of many things we all admired about Tim that we may not have known before his memorial service. It had a powerful impact on me, which is why I felt the need to digest some of it in writing this essay. Thanks Bob

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  4. Aloha Bob, I’m in transition again. Move number 36 and looking for an immediate position. I now live on a horse ranch in North San Diego County.
    The Bible. Yesterday, one of my legal advisors commented that we all have our crosses that we bear. I’m currently looking for another Bible based church here in North County. One that preaches the Holy scripture as it is and one where the Elders are walking the talk. For the moment, I am attending North Coast Calvary. Been investigating different churches here in North County. If anyone would like to attend church with me and break some bread, your more than welcome to come with me. I have been practicing yoga since 2013. Praise God for yoga. There is a difference between meditation and prayer. I started researching the Gregorian chants and have implemented Christian Biblical scripture into my yoga meditation. My life long Biblical Christian mentor passed away from bone cancer in May 2013. He was my 8th grade US History. I met him when I was 13 years old in Barstow, California. He attended my graduation ceremony from the boat school. He was originally from Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement and went on to serve in the U.S. Army, Mr. Vernon Purnell. I’ll keep praying.
    Keep fighting the good fight, Christine
    619.972.6621

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    • Thanks Christine. I believe it can really be transformative to go to the services of people who have changed our lives. We normally make quite an effort to do so. It’s going to the services of people we simply knew – we can’t always do that, but making the time, can also be an important event – that slap in the face we all need from time to time. Thanks for your comment. Bob

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  5. Hi Bob, thanks for the story. It was powerful and honest. I appreciate the reflection your story moved me to take today, during a busy shift at the hospital. Looking forward to more stuff from you. Thanks. -Jonny

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    • Jonny – you guys who work in the medical field have a much more intimate relationship with death than the rest of us. Thanks for sharing – and continue to share your wisdom and insights. Bob

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    • I do too, Michael. I think you’ll love the Ted Talk in which David Brooks expands on the idea. I have changed “earn” a great eulogy to “deserve” a great eulogy. I like the implication better – the great eulogy is a mere by-product of a life well lived, rather than an objective. thanks for your comment. Bob

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  6. Good post, Frogman. I have been to a few memorial services and I always leave better than I arrived. It’s always great to hear stories about a life well-lived.

    My Dad always used to say: “Send the flowers while they are living.” I get his point. Nonetheless, it’s good to connect with the deceased’s family and mutual friends at the memorial service.

    One old fella once said: “Make sure when it’s your time to die…that all you have to do is die.”…prepare for the inevitable end, so that you finish the race well, and so that “…no one has to lie when they say nice things about you at your memorial service.”

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    • Dave – love the line about “…all you have to do is die.” That said, we’ll all leave some things in our in-box. My 90 year old father is trying to make his passing in the not-too-far-distant-future as easy on us as he can. I’m telling him to not worry, and relax and enjoy each day he has left. Hard to do when you’ve been conditioned through a lifetime of fulfilling obligations, doing more than your share, and taking care of others. Bob

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  7. Bob, excellent and provoking – thank you for positively impacting and leading our community – beyond NSW. Captain Holden leaves behind an incredible legacy, as will you.

    My most recent slap in the face was on August 1st – celebration of life for Kevin Childre – who, while serving as CO of the EOD Training Command, died tragically while leading dozens of cyclist on a fundraising ride for the Wounded EOD Warrior Foundation. Kevin was going to officiate our wedding – which is just around the corner in November on Coronado Island….we’ll add another toast and candle to the empty table we’ll all be sitting at someday. Respectfully, PT

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    • Paul – that is a tough one. I heard about that accident from my friend Marko Medved. My son is competing on the East Coast and told me of a similar accident in a race he was in. It will add a melancholy element to your wedding for sure, but you know he would want it to be positive- celebrate his life, and live and celebrate with him in mind. We should all wish as much from those we leave behind, when it’s our turn. Bob

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  8. Bob thanks for posting this. I was having a conversation with a mutual friend about a comment I think is used but not really thought through when used ( I did the best I could) I started calling bullshit on that quote because I reflect back on my own life and say I could have done a lot better on a lot of things. Your post really drives home that we really need to do the best we can not just say it. It is great to hear stories of people who did their best and are rembered for inspiring people to be better.

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  9. Hello Bob. So sorry to hear of your friend’s passing and I was very moved by your thoughtful article as I was by many of the comments made by contributors. One cannot reach my age without having suffered bereavement and I always think of the lines from a poem by John Donne , “each man’s death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind” – words with which I am sure you are familiar. It describes very accurately the sorrow of losing a part of the life you have lived and the feeling that you have lost a part of yourself. I have attended many funerals to show my love and respect for the deceased and to support those who are most in need of comfort and I only hope that when my time comes, someone will do the same for me and mine.

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  10. Bob,

    Not sure which email you are using these days, trying both of these will see what happens. Wanted to tell you how great it was to see you the other day, wish we would have had more time to catch up, time does get away from me these days, life is definitely passing quickly at times – much too quickly.

    Which also brings me to a few comments on your post – I, too, have been that person who avoids funerals/memorials. Don’t know why, no particular aversion to death or the rituals just couldn’t be bothered.

    Then something similar caught me up short – and I realized that all lives matter or mattered. While my presence at a funeral does not matter to the dearly departed, it matters to the family and it matters to me. I go when I can, and mostly I can with some personal effort.

    We only get so much time in this time capsule we call life and it only goes forward at one speed. When it is our time to get off it doesn’t stop, we just get off. Life is to be lived in our own ways and then to be celebrated by our friends and families in their own ways.

    Hope to see you again soon, I might be repeating myself but it was sure good seeing you again. You looked mah-velous, simply mah-velous,

    Warmest regards,

    Rich

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  11. I got this sent to me directly. I thought it profound and it moved me -so I include it here, without the name of my friend who sent it to me.

    HI Bob,

    I don’t know. When I am reflecting about my brother, I am not thinking about my own death and what I would want people to take away from it. In that, I shift the story from him to me.

    The slap in the face over his death —- with my yoga practice I do spend daily reflections in my blessings, thoughts of others…. and I think I do reflect on my purpose in life. I don’t think that has shifted because of his death.

    And my own death — maybe because I don’t have kids, and I hope that I am living beyond my dad’s death for his sake, and I am not leaving a life shattering legacy….. so my death feels like a feather that will blow away with some breeze and go unnoticed. I don’t anticipate a funeral. My community is so spread out. In thinking about my death, I feel impermanence and being a tiny speck on the planet. I was just in this conversation a few days ago with friends.

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  12. Pretty heavy thinking! It is sobering to anticipate the end of life as we know it, and to contemplate not on what you accomplished, but on those many things you will probably never complete or ever accomplish! One enjoys the love he has experienced which he will carry with him forever.
    Nice piece Bob to add to the other great blogs! OPA

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  13. Bob, I am sorry for the loss of your friend Tim and wanted to write that I greatly enjoyed your blog post regarding his service. The last funerals I attended were my grandmothers last year in North Dakota and my old Latin teacher Mr. Sims’ in Minnesota. In my grandmothers case, she approached her death with as much grace as I’ve noted so far in my experience and I was happy that her funeral was as much of a celebration of her wonderful life as it was. Though I’d known her my whole life, it was fascinating to learn so much more about all of those years before she was my grandmother. I had always just known the wave-tops of her life, even with 29 years to have learned more. The same was true of my old teacher, David Sims. Though I sat in his Latin classes for six years, and had him as an advisor for three, I never knew he was an old Navy man, let alone the other prescient details of his many years that a high school kid would never ask his teacher.

    There is no denying the inconvenience of death and the attending ceremony associated with it, but I would wholeheartedly agree that attending these services for people who are or were meaningful to you in your life is important. Furthermore, whether one believes in some sort of afterlife or not, I believe that there is great Karma in attending funerals. Though it may mean nothing to the dead, dependent on your beliefs, your presence at a funeral provides comfort to the living and helps cement their knowledge that their loved one touched the lives of those outside of the family circle in significant ways.

    Anyways, great article. Cheers.

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  14. Thanks for sharing another great post! I relate to a lot of what you said about going to funerals and memorials. It wasn’t until I was deployed to Anbar Province, Iraq, in 2006, that I realized the importance of attending memorials. I’ve attended dozens and dozens of services for Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen and civilians during my deployments. Although I didn’t know most of them, I treasured the few quiet, peaceful moments of reflection while honoring their service and sacrifices.

    Among all the high emotions and uncertainty of my own mortality, attending services was a way of re-awakening my own sense of grief and gratitude as the mundane, day-to-day tasks grinded away at these important feelings.

    I often came away feeling guilty, but exceptionally grateful for the chance to live and each time vowed to maximize my potential – in the name of those who were lost. The time spent getting to and attending memorials was a chance to re-set, re-charge and brought out an inner calling to ‘carry on and pass the torch’ in their memory.

    Ironically, I came across this article today about HS students who have volunteered to serve as pallbearers for homeless veterans who didn’t have any family to attend services. Great story….
    http://www.today.com/news/final-tribute-teens-serve-pallbearers-homeless-military-veterans-t51966

    Thanks again for a great article about the balance of living and letting go…

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    • Amy – what a wonderful comment – a great essay in itself. And thank you for the link to that article. What a great initiative – for HS kids to be pall bearers for veterans who have no one to carry their caskets to the grave. I hope that the wonderful faculty member who initiated it is having meaningful discussions with them afterward to help them process and learn from this experience. As always, thank you for your insightful comments. Bob

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  15. Thanks, Bob. This was beautiful. It puts into words the appreciation i had for those that showed up that day for my dad and us. It made all the difference to me to know that people appreciate the impact he had as much as we do and that they made the time to come celebrate him. Great to see you.

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  16. An inspiring essay to say the least, Bob! Every contact I have with you and your NROTC classmates has given me confidence in mankind’s future! At 85 my time is coming soon, I’m sure, tho I’d like to linger on to 100! Don’t worry, I know Who the Author of the Book is and will, of course, willingly accept His decision on the last chapter! The presence of those friends and relatives who attended Burl’s funeral definitely helped in our loss as they showed us that he continued to live tho in a different way! Always in our hearts but also in the lives of others! Blessings on you and your Family!
    Margie Wright (aka Esther)

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    • Thanks Marge. I really appreciate you sharing that with me and others who look at my posts. Attending memorial services are powerful statements – to oneself, to the family, and to others. It’s easy to forget that sometimes. Bob

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  17. Good Post Captain… really hits home with my good friend Tom Walsh pass this winter. We should all strive to “deserve a great eulogy…”

    Dean

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