Trip to Joplin and Carthage Showcased Steps in Grief Process

The spirit tree in Joplin symbolizes the resiliency of humankind.
The spirit tree in Joplin symbolizes the resiliency of humankind.
At the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Mo., artist Sam Butcher painted this mural in a room dedicated to his son, Philip, who died in a car accident. The sign in heaven reads "Welcome home, Philip."
At the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Mo., artist Sam Butcher painted this mural in a room dedicated to his son, Philip, who died in a car accident. The sign in heaven reads “Welcome home, Philip.”

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

When my husband, Jim, and I went to southwest Missouri recently to support our son’s basketball team and spend some time together, I had no idea that the trip would help me deal with my grief. One stop gave me an opportunity to vent my sorrow while another convinced me that I can rise above grief and rebuild my life. In one weekend, I experienced the spectrum of the grief process.

At Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Mo., I quickly realized I had stumbled upon a place where I could grieve without worrying about concealing my tears. The chapel features more than 80 murals by Sam Butcher, creator of the childlike Precious Moments figurines, and it urges visitors to take time for reflection. I especially appreciated the memorial room that Butcher created for his son Philip, who died as an adult in a 1990 highway accident. The mural in the room depicts heaven and a sign “Welcome Home, Philip” as well as an empty bed surrounded by Philip’s friends and family members.

After reading the posted information about Philip, I felt compelled to sit and study the mural more closely. I felt peaceful, like I do when church empties out and I can light a candle, kneel, pray, and reflect upon … well, anything. At the chapel, I thought not only about the parents I had lost but also the baby I had miscarried and the pain my parents endured when my sisters Mimi and Susan died from physical ailments at ages 47 and 39. Sure, I cried, but it was a cleansing, therapeutic cry. It felt good.

The chapel’s measures of comfort didn’t end with Philip’s memorial. In the next room, I found tributes to children and adults who had died in addition to several over-sized old-fashioned ledgers for people to write prayer intentions or to jot notes to relatives and friends who had died. Given a chance, I could have commemorated every relative and friend who had passed away. I settled for asking for prayers for my parents and for writing a note to my mother.

“Let’s go,” my husband urged. “This is depressing.”

“I don’t find it depressing,” I said. “It’s comforting.”

This trip didn’t mark our first trip to the chapel. We also visited  in the Summer of 2004 with our children, who were then 2, 6, and 9. We didn’t have much of an opportunity to read the plaques and learn about the circumstances surrounding the murals. Elizabeth, my youngest, identified with the Precious Moments statues adorning the grounds because they were about the same height as she was. She had limited speaking skills, but she had no trouble excitedly pointed at the statues and then at herself over and over again. She also enjoyed tossing her Cabbage Patch swimming doll in the fountains and trying to retrieve her. Repeatedly.

Needless, to say that experience differed drastically from my most recent trip.

Jim and I next went to the city of Joplin. Jim and I had been there the night before for one of my son’s basketball games, but it was dark. I did not get a clear picture of the lingering effects of the EF-5 tornado in May 2011 that killed more than 155 people, destroyed or damaged about 7,500 homes and affected about 550 businesses, according to Internet reports.

After driving down one block after another of leveled ground, I was amazed more people didn’t die. Foundations of former buildings and remnants of former parking lots gave the only hints in some blocks of civilization. It’s a flat area that looks even flatter now.

However, it’s heartening to see the new homes, new churches, new businesses and other buildings. The human spirit is resilient. We watched two basketball games in the new high school that’s still unfinished. Like many modern high schools, it looks more like a sprawling college campus than a school for teenagers. I especially liked the gymnasium during the game Saturday afternoon. Windows line the upper level of the gymnasium, and during the day, natural light meshes with electrical lighting to produce an almost mystical aura similar to what it’s like outside after a hard rain. Too bad, the boys from Jefferson City didn’t win their championship tournament game against Francis Howell High School from the St. Louis area.

We spent more time driving around Joplin than we had planned, and I was glad. I had set my heart on eating at a barbecue joint another parent had recommended, and we drove up and down 24th Street, then 20th Street, then 4th Street, and finally under recommendation by a clerk in a convenience store, we found Big R’s on 15th Street. Great hamburgers, curly fries, and pulled pork, not to mention awesome pie.

While driving in the tornado-affected area, Jim and I quickly noticed that the tornado had destroyed not only buildings but trees. The trees that remained looked barren, even for a winter’s day. One tree, in particular, stood out.

“Stop the car,” I told my husband. “I’ve got to get a closer look at that.”

Crooked ovals painted in vibrant colors adorned its trunk and limbs. It looked like a tree version of the Edvard Munch works called The Scream. I sensed the tree was screaming in the face of adversity. Maybe, it was screaming at Mother Nature. Perhaps, “Leave us alone!”  or “Huh, you think you’re so powerful. Just you wait!”

I later found out via the Internet that multiple artists worked on the piece, known as the spirit tree. Inspired by Native American art, it gives tribute to the residents of Joplin who have rebuilt their lives as well as to the many volunteers who have helped them. I felt that the tree epitomized the resiliency of mankind.

I was intrigued. If the residents of Joplin can resurrect their lives after the tornado, I can rebuild mine after enduring seven years as a caregiver and losing my parents. In the future, when I become upset, I will try to find renewed strength by thinking of those who overcame so much. Like the spirit tree, I can scream, too.

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