Archives: April 2012

Finding a Glimmer of Mercy in the Universe

04.18.2012 1:17 PM

Is there a glimmer of mercy in the universe?

Dwelling in silence this morning in the ballet studio, I reflected on the 35 years I have called the barre home.  As I looked across the room my eye caught the image of one of my fellow classmates who recently moved to the area and is struggling to get her feet settled.  A few weeks ago she shared after class some of her frustrations and how without this class to attend she probably would have given up and gone back home.  I smiled in resonance with her sentiment.  How many times in my life has a dance class been my salvation?  Even at my lowest I could step to the barre and somehow the music and the mirror reflected back to me that I belong, I am not alone, there is more to life than this current frustration, this current setback, this current reality.  Dance has often provided a glimmer of mercy in the universe when I have needed it most.

As a sophomore in high school I read Camus’ The Stranger with rapt attention.  Drinking coffee at his mother’s funeral, abetting his neighbor’s brutality, repeatedly shooting a man simply because he is hot, Meursault was and remains a distasteful stranger to me.  I could resonant with his longing for meaning in the great vastness of the universe but when he eventually opened his soul to the signs and stars of a benign, indifferent universe, I thought, NO.  Even in the broken cruelty of a Flannery O’Connor character, there is always one who glimpses a place of mercy in this often hard and mysterious world.  A grandmother witnesses the brutal killing of her family and as she converses with the serial killer who will indifferently execute her as well, she will not allow the cruel brutality of another to snuff out the whisper of mercy in her existence.  She could have titled this story the soul-crushing, hopeless: “There are no good men,” but instead a glimmer of mercy is seen in the title of her story: “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” No puppy dogs and rainbows, but a glimmer.

Of late, Elizabeth and I have conversed at length about a family she wrote about recently at HuffPost where the caregiving husband kills his wife and then himself, and sadly they are one of many others.  I have shared with her that I am haunted by the husband’s picture, which for some reason, The Alzheimer’s Reading Room shared when they broke the news of his and his wife’s death.  The echoes of every 75 year old man I have ever known or served as a pastor lives in his smile.  Gazing at his picture, a list of names and faces of my own run like a ticker tape through my mind.  I see their smiles, their families and their stories of sacrifice, health crises, relentless debility and crushing grief at all that can be lost before death, and I wonder, why murder and suicide for one and not for so many others?

I have been asked that question about hospice patients many times. “Do a lot of patients commit suicide?”  And my answer is always a resounding, “No.”  On the one hand I understand a healthy person being perplexed that one would not want to end life when the promises of tomorrow are waning, but that perspective seems naïve and a bit sheltered.  Over a decade of serving countless individuals, I have only experienced one suicide.  That suicide devastated that family and our hospice team in ways that death never has.  As our team sat with counselors to process our thoughts and emotions I wondered, ‘We are around death 24/7.  Most of the people at this table are on call at night and on weekends.  I have taken calls on Christmas and been with families and our team whenever needed.  Why does this suicide grieve us so acutely?’  The only word I could find was mercy.  Part of the beauty I have seen on a hospice team is the abiding belief in the inherent mercy of the universe which may be communicated through a cool rag on a forehead, a reassuring voice over the telephone, through the mystical moments when a person is still with us and yet already gone.  We focus on alleviating pain, loneliness and fear, because those experiences build on the relentlessly unmerciful elements of existence.  In finding the unique expressions of mercy in a person’s life, we contribute to ongoing glimmers of mercy in the universe.

Many have implied that killing his wife and himself was merciful.  Euthanasia proponents will even use the term “mercy killing.”  But I take issue with that use of the word mercy.  I know that psychologists and counselors, Alzheimer’s and grief experts will say that suicide is always the result of a mix of nature and nurture, chemical make-up and mental health, circumstance and chance.  As with the many roles we play, the true burden of caregiving can only be experienced first-hand, and the trek of caring for a loved one is rife with moments where the stars and signs of the universe gaze down with unfeeling and unmerciful indifference. But when I use the word “mercy” I try to do so carefully.  When I think of mercy, I think of receiving undeserved or unmerited kindness or treatment. A merciful act is one that reconnects us to humankind—reminds us that we belong, that we are not alone, and that our lives have meaning beyond the current reality.

“On the just and unjust, alike it doth rain,

And the quality of mercy is not strained.”  Michelle Shocked


From Britain: How do you determine a household’s income when so many parents aren’t married?

04.17.2012 4:48 PM

An article from the Telegraph about a fracus over determining who gets the Child Benefit entitlement when nobody can reliably tell who is a couple and who is not. (Are they married? In a civil partnership? If they are among the vast and increasing numbers sporadically ”living together as married,” how does the tax man determine that?)

Benefits staff are told in guidance to consider “duration and stability of the   relationship”, “financial arrangements”, “sexual relations (although a   person should not be asked about this)”, “the degree of interdependence and   devotion” and “how other people see the relationship”.

However they do not use a “score card” or a single factor to decide if two people are in a relationship akin to marriage or civil partnership.

Meanwhile critics charge these questions are “intrusive.”

For Lois

04.17.2012 9:40 AM

Santa Clara, Oregon:

Investigators say the husband Leo shot his wife Lois and then killed himself sometime within the past few days…Neighbors of the Harts say at the age of 84, Leo’s health had been declining, but his 82-year-old wife was healthy.

“I was more friends with the wife. She would walk her dogs up and down the streets. We have two dogs. We talked dogs and gardening and things like that,” Wilkinson said…Investigators say Leo did leave a letter addressed to his children but no specific motive as to why he shot his wife and then killed himself.

Detectives say they have no reason to believe the wife had any part in the plan.

Las Vegas Review-Journal: ‘A New Child Welfare Campaign’

04.16.2012 8:53 PM

Reported by columnist Glenn Cook:

…The maddening, tragic trend of children being murdered by the abusive boyfriends of their single mothers has the full attention of valley law enforcement, social workers and researchers. On Wednesday, as part of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, a coalition led by UNLV’s Nevada Institute for Children’s Research and Policy launched the “Choose Your Partner Carefully” campaign. The drive, which already is under way in other communities across the country, attempts to educate parents about qualities in a partner/caregiver that officials say can put a child at risk for abuse.

The state-funded campaign will place posters at bus stop shelters and fliers and brochures at community centers, medical offices, schools, child care providers, domestic violence shelters and government offices.

This is a great idea.

And better than another recent idea out of Wisconsin. See my earlier blog post to learn about the research on risks to children of living with their mother’s boyfriends.

‘The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage’

04.16.2012 8:33 PM

…by UVA clinical psychologist Meg Jay, has been in the top ten most emailed articles at the NYT since it went up this weekend.

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.

Be sure to see Scott Stanley’s influential “sliding versus deciding” thesis.

True or False?

04.16.2012 8:28 PM

Bill Dobbs at today’s NYT Room for Debate:

Far from being radical, a vote for same-sex marriage is a vote for marriage. The only safer act for a politician is kissing a baby.

Dementia and divorce

04.16.2012 6:20 PM

Recently my 80 year old father who had been diagnosed with mild dementia has become fixated on his finances. So much so that he is convinced that my mother has been stealing his money for years (which is not true and we have presented attorneys, case workers, psychiatrists, etc. to explain to him otherwise but he is convinced of this.) And it has now culminated into his request for a divorce. My mother who is his primary caregiver is fed up and doesn’t want to argue with him anymore and is granting his request. I understand that this is quite common…

New Chinese Film: “Piano in a Factory”

04.16.2012 6:17 PM

A new movie from China about a couple with a young daughter divorcing, and the husband caring for his own father with dementia, sounds fascinatingly similar to the recent Iranian film “A Separation.”

…Set in a post-industrial hellhole of a town somewhere in northeast China, “Piano” opens on a Fellini-esque note. A husband named Chen (Wang Quin-yuan) and his unfaithful wife (Jang Shin-yeong) are shown standing side by side in a wasteland of old factories. They are discussing divorce and custody of their young daughter while waiting for a wedding to start in the apocalyptic landscape. There is a lot of discussion about material things — washers, appliances, TV — that would not have happened during Mao’s commie reign.

Chen, an ex-factory worker, is an accordionist in a rag-tag wedding band, which includes his girlfriend/singer (Qin Hai-lu). Their relationship flip-flops between casual and serious. The accordionist has a lot on his mind between caring for his dementia-addled father and his grade school-age daughter.

When the divorce papers finally arrive, Chen and his soon-to-be-ex decide to ask their daughter to pick which parent will take primary custody. The young girl says she will move in with the one who gets her a piano.

The M.Guy Tweet

04.14.2012 5:18 PM

Marriage Media
Week of April 2, 2011
Courtesy of Bill Coffin


1. How to Maintain a Healthy Marriage (in Good Times and Bad), heallovebe

A reporter asked the couple, “How did you manage to stay together for 65 years?” The woman replied,” We were born in a time when if something was broken we would fix it, not throw it away. . .”

2. Defining the Relationship, The Quinnipiac Chronicle

A study done by the Institute for American Values’ 16-member Courtship Research Team, which surveyed 1,000 college-aged women nationally over an 18-month period, agrees.

“Because they can hang out or hook up with a guy over a period of time and still not know if they are a couple, women often initiate ‘the talk’ in which they ask, ‘Are we committed or not?’ When she asks, he decides,” the study says.

3. The Myth of the Disappearing Middle Class, The Washington Post

[A]dults who graduated from at least high school, had a job, and were both at least age 21 and married before having children had about a 2 percent chance of living in poverty and a better than 70 percent chance of making the middle class — defined as $65,000 or more in household income. People who did not meet any of these factors had a 77 percent chance of living in poverty and a 4 percent chance of making the middle class (or higher).

4. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Heritage Foundation

Drawing on five decades of statistics and research, Coming Apart demonstrates that a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship – divergence that has nothing to do with income inequality and that has grown during good economic times and bad.

5. Taking Mystery out of Marriage, The Houston Chronicle

During a fight, for example, it is not a good idea to stretch out the talking points or to deliver them with extra-special emphasis. “One of the counterintuitive rules in the midst of an argument is to say it shorter and to dial down the volume and intensity,” Lerner says. “Make your point in three sentences or less.”

In that spirit, Lerner shares some of her favorite tips: [10 Points]. 10. Go small. Pick one or two rules and work on them for three months. That’s how long it really takes to change your behavior.

6. Can Women Raise Boys to be Men?, Queens Chronicle

Opening the discussion for the opposition, clinical social worker Rodney Pride, who serves as vice president of youth development at United Black Men of Queens, said, “Eight out of 10 boys are without a positive male role model in their families and that ain’t good. So many boys are walking around with a level of anger.”

7. Disadvantaged Families and Child Outcomes: The Importance of Emotional Support for Mothers, Child Trends

Raising children is a challenge for parents from all walks of life. However, parents who experience social and economic disadvantages face particular challenges in trying to meet the needs of their children. Some of these parents have support in rearing their children, but many do not. This Research Brief takes a close look at the link between the emotional support that mothers receive—or do not receive—in raising their children and their children’s development.


For more, see here.

Social Security Cares: A Proposal for PAID Family/Medical Leave

04.12.2012 12:02 PM

The Center for American Progress released a report today on the potential positive effects of a PAID Family/Medical Leave Act.

“The reality is that most workers also have caregiving responsibilities at one time or another. Mothers are breadwinners or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of families and with an aging population, more and more workers need time off to care for an ailing loved one. Together, paid family and medical leave makes it easier for employees facing the need to take time to provide care for a family member to transition back into their jobs. Our analysis in this paper finds that a federal paid family and medical leave program would most likely have positive effects on employment and lifetime income. National data consistently show that access to any form of parental leave, paid or unpaid, makes women more likely to return to work after giving birth. Estimates are that these effects would be largest for less-educated and lower-income families, who currently have the lowest levels of access to any form of leave, paid or unpaid. The benefits would be particularly strong for single mothers, who are more likely to be lower income and who do not have a spouse to take over caregiving responsibilities…

Social Security Cares also would improve retirement security and help close the gap in pay between women and men. Paid family and medical leave would help reduce the gender pay gap because access to paid leave will increase the job tenure rates, lifetime earnings, and economic security in retirement for women, who are currently the most likely to take unpaid leave or drop out of the workforce when family caregiving responsibilities present themselves. Further, paid leave will encourage more men to take caregiving leave, thus reducing the stigma around leave-taking while providing men with greater access to the work-life balance they increasingly desire….” Read more

Their policy proposal is called “Social Security Cares.”  Although I am sure there are pieces and parts that can be analyzed and picked apart in depth, my spirits are buoyed that baby steps of progress are being made towards supporting the role of caregivers for both our vulnerable young and vulnerable old.

Granted, 90 days is not long, but it’s a step forward.

Civil Unions

04.11.2012 5:22 PM

I had a chance last night to go hear a talk by the “civil unions guy” — law professor John Culhane who wrote this piece in Slate in January. He was at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago presenting early findings from a survey he’s done of heterosexual couples who have signed up for civil unions in Illinois, the first such state with civil unions that allowed heterosexuals to enter them too. (France has been doing something like this for a while.)

He put together a little panel of two couples, one gay, one straight, both couples raising children, and both of whom were among the first couples to register for civil unions in IL. His research question — and the questions he asked them — center around why heteros might sign up for civil unions and if, and if so how, they might be different from same-sex couples who sign up.

It was a fascinating evening, in part because, from my point of view, a concern about civil unions is not how they would affect same-sex couples (they make sense to me as a useful route to legal protections) but how they might be used by straight couples. What I want to know is whether a straight couple signing up for a civil union is more like a cohabiting couple or a marrying couple. The latter breaks up far less than the former, so if you’re concerned about family stability and child well-being this is a pertinent question. Read More

New website for the Center for Marriage and Families

04.11.2012 12:19 PM

FamilyScholars is based at the Center for Marriage and Families. We have a new website that went live today.


04.11.2012 12:06 PM

Text-speak for “defining the relationship.”

A lengthy college newspaper article on the problem, which cites our 2001 Hooking Up report.

For fans of MTV’s hit show “Awkward,” the acronym DTR may not be a new thing, but for those not in the loop, DTR, or “defining the relationship,” is making an appearance in relationships across college campuses. From hooking up, to dating, to forming serious relationships, how does one know when to push toward the next step?

Blankenhorn and Marquardt: Amendment goes too far

04.11.2012 9:31 AM

We have an opinion piece in today’s Raleigh News and Observer:

If you want to create a backlash against mother-father marriage – if you want to convince people that the real agenda of marriage advocates is not protecting marriage, but ignoring and ostracizing gay people – then this amendment might be to your liking. But we believe that the cause of marriage is hurt, not helped, by gratuitously linking it to the cause of never under any circumstances helping gay and lesbian couples.

Ashley Judd Stands Up For Women

04.11.2012 9:00 AM

Ashley Judd, in the Daily Beast, notes:

“The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted….

That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.”

Say, what am I doing posting this piece at Family Scholars Blog (FSB) anyway?

Well, conversation about women’s bodies- pregnancy, bodily autonomy, gamete donation- are a part of the regular discourse at FSB. As we question and debate these issues and practices, how might they relate to some of these other narratives about women’s bodies and who gets to control them and how they get talked about? Read More

Good News in New York: ‘Spousal refusal’ kept intact

04.10.2012 4:10 PM

Reported by Sanford Altman at the Times Herald-Record:

You may recall that, just to add insult to injury, the governor had looked to add a provision in this year’s budget to end the practice of “spousal refusal.” This change would have forced healthy spouses to impoverish themselves so their ill spouses could receive Medicaid for long-term care.

Aside from making it more difficult for seniors to become eligible for Medicaid, ending spousal refusal had the potential to force more seniors into nursing homes and cause an increase in marriages of many years ending in divorce.

Now, as a result of the same joint efforts, eliminating spousal refusal is no longer in the new budget.

Read his whole piece to see the plans the governor had for “legalization of state-authorized ‘grave robbing’ to pay back Medicaid funds, and how that failed too.

See my recent piece at Huffington Post, “Gov. Cuomo Should Not Jettison the ‘Spousal Refusal’ Allowance in State’s Medicaid Program,” and see Altman’s article to learn about the organizations that led the successful effort.

Kodokushi: Thoughts on a “Lonely Death”

04.10.2012 3:26 PM

In yesterday’s NYTimes, Kumiko Makihari reflects on her fear being found several days after dying alone and the fracturing of the family and communal systems that once would have allayed this fear. She reflects on a popular Japanese novel that sounds fascinating and sadly, quite timely.

“Japan’s bewilderment as it faces the fraying of traditional family roles is cleverly chronicled in a popular novel, “Death-at-Seventy Law Passed.” The story takes place in Tokyo in 2020. The main character is a housewife exhausted from caring for her bed-ridden, elderly mother-in-law who ceaselessly berates her. The rest of the family members are equally unsympathetic. The husband believes that financially supporting the household absolves him from any other duties; the self-absorbed adult daughter steers clear of her mother to avoid having to pitch in, and the grown son who lives at home rarely leaves his room after being traumatized by losing his job.

They are all familiar types to Japanese today. We are like them ourselves or know people like that. In the book, the government is about to pass a law that would require everyone to be euthanized when they reach the age of 70. The story opens with the housewife fantasizing about how free she will be when the law forces the death of her mother-in-law.”

And Americans worry about death panels and health care rationing!

But as I read her words, and granted I am a ritual theory junkie, I just kept hearing J.Z. Smith harp at me, “She’s worried about liminality, Amy!  We’re always worried about liminality!”  What happens when we enter this world and when we leave?  Moments of mystery and deep sacredness lie in the places where we cross over, where we become and where we cease to be.  In her reflections I sense that as I peeks at the threshold of death we will all inevitably cross, she imagines that having a hand to hold at the horizon of existence would be nice.

But perhaps there is more in her worry that being alone.  Competing with Smith’s grouchy voice in my mind is the imagined voice of Willy Loman’s widow shouting at his grave, “Attention must be paid!”  Not only do most of us not want to be alone, but we’d like for our existence to matter, for attention to be paid.  When we cease to be, we’d like to think that someone will care.  Our moments of liminality should be noticed, honored, and felt.

But then again, perhaps, Makihari is simply a realist.  As Elizabeth has pondered aloud to me many times–a society that now “bowls alone” will eventually be a society that dies alone.

Kodokushi: a lonely death.


Why do some men kill their sick spouses, but women rarely do?

04.10.2012 1:18 PM

Some good comments evolving at my Huffington Post piece on elderly murder-suicide that went up yesterday. Including:

It should be clear to those who look objectively at the situation that we are dealing with violent versus non-violent coping strategies to dealing with burdensome demands of caregiving.


It would help if our culture was not dumping centuries worth of social capital in abandoning notions of honor and committment when it comes to marriage.

Also a very good exchange between Jeffrey and Mythago here at FamilyScholars, where I linked to the piece below.

And, the folks at Not Dead Yet commented on the piece and Stephen Drake of that organization is commenting at Huffington Post.

Should we praise old men who kill their wives and then themselves?

04.09.2012 9:12 AM

My new piece, on elderly murder-suicide, the Snelling case, and multiple recent cases of men killing their sick wives, at Huffington Post today.

Whatever the reasons, even if we have compassion for the killer, surely we should have as much, if not a great deal more, for his victim. At the very least, let’s make a pledge to stop praising these killers as loving heroes. A hero is a man who asks for help, who admits feeling overwhelmed, who cries out for respite, or who simply cries. A man who murders his sick, innocent, helpless wife is no hero.

What Motivates Us?

04.07.2012 9:49 AM

What motivates us to act?

Crisis, vision, boredom, necessity, greed, enjoyment, manipulation, love, passion, desperation…

Swimming through my mind this week have been all sorts of thoughts about motivation, most of them heavy.  Studies show that the loss of a spouse or the loss of a home can motivate an elderly woman to seek escape at a casino.  State governments can be motivated to support lotteries that in turn provide funds for much-needed social services that due to a declining tax base are constantly in jeopardy of being cut.  A caregiver for a spouse living with dementia is motivated to kill her and then kill himself.   For Christians, we find ourselves in Holy Week, observing Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday.    In greed and self-righteousness, Judas is motivated to betray his rabbi.  In fear and self-preservation, Peter is motivated to deny knowing his rabbi.  And ultimately, we are reminded that we are called to love one another as God has first loved us. What motivates us to act?

Crisis, vision, boredom, necessity, greed, enjoyment, manipulation, love, passion, desperation…

Earlier this week I drove several hours up state route 51 and noticed countless green and white signs proclaiming, “Save Murray Center.”  The Warren G. Murray Developmental Center has been open since 1964, employs over 500, and currently serves 276 severely disabled residents.  Governor Pat Quinn announced plans to close the Murray center in order to close gaps in the state budget and to somehow bolster private care for these individuals.  Thankfully, the region has rallied together to say that this is not acceptable.  I am not an expert on these issues but as someone who has recently served in homeless shelters and soup kitchens in St. Louis, I heard the clearly the statistics from the directors of several social service agencies and saw first-hand that a large percentage of patrons are disabled or mentally ill individuals who were phased out of group home settings and cannot function in society.  If Murray Center closes, do we need to encourage the faith-based communities in Southern Illinois to begin investing in homeless shelters and soup kitchens?

But back to motivation, I was impressed that people all along rural state route 51 were motivated to publicaly show their support for the Murray Center.  As an outside observer who knew of the service provided by the Murray Center I felt that the entire community was supporting the important work that serving the most vulnerable among us is and that ultimately demands the entire community’s resources and involvement.  I hope those actions motivate the Governor.

Crisis, vision, boredom, necessity, greed, enjoyment, manipulation, love, passion, desperation…