Wisdom from Wibaux: Beyond the vale of tears and grief

Beyond the Vale of Tears and Grief: Rev. Jeff Gannon on the Wisdom from Wibaux


The Empty Bedroom

When I was in the first grade, I had a habit of going into my parent’s room in the middle of the night. I did not go in every night but usually at least once a week. I was convinced the “boogey man” was out to get me. Each time, My mother would take me back to my room and assure me the “boogey man” was not real and he did not have any power to “get” me.

One night, I went into my parent’s bedroom and the bed was completely empty. I then went to my sister’s room and to my surprise, she was awake. She informed me that my mother took my father to the hospital thirty minutes away.

The next evening, my mother, my sister and I went to the Glendive Medical Center to see my father. I remember to this day the room he was in. He was in a bed facing the east. A white sheet covered his hospital gown up to his neck. A plastic tube in each nostril delivered extra air. It allowed him to talk to us. After an hour or so of conversation we went back home. The next morning I went to school.

Leaving School on a Silent Winter Day

It was a typical winter day in Montana. Very cold, a lot of snow on the ground, and cloudy. It was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and Mrs. Begger was teaching us math, when all of a sudden I saw my mother. She was talking to my teacher with whom I had a love/hate relationship. Mrs. Begger motioned for me to follow her to the coat closet which was adjacent our classroom. My mother was holding my coat and started to put it on me. At this point, neither my mother nor Mrs. Begger were saying anything to me. I wondered why I was leaving school.

We walked outside into the cold winter air to the family car. Inside were my two brothers and my sister. They were crying. Though the car was running, though running, the drastically cold air had frosted over the windows. We drove in the car to our hobby farm, a five minute drive, and nobody said anything. The silence was deafening. I remember thinking I wish somebody would tell me what was going on. I wondered if something had happened to my father but I was afraid to interrupt the silent screams of pain.

The next thing I remember is that within a matter of minutes, there were lots of people coming to our home with food. What I most remember is that people were hugging my mother and offering their sympathy. I was still wondering what was going on. I thought it has something to do with my father but I wasn’t sure. My family was unable and/or unwilling to speak. All I saw were tears and sadness and a lot of hugging as people came to our home. This went on for hours.

Black Robes, Taps and a Folded Flag

The next thing I remember is that we are at the funeral. We were sitting in the family room of our church which was adjacent to the sanctuary. My great uncle cried as the service began. Rev. Schnackenberg led the service wearing his black robe. Ellis Jones, the local banker, had purchased it for him because he couldn’t afford any liturgical garments. Mr. Jones insisted that Rev. Schnackenberg be appropriately dressed for such sacred occasions.

At the end of the service, the congregation was dismissed to the outside while we, as a family, walked past the casket for a final goodbye. I saw my father lying in the casket. He looked so peaceful I thought he was taking a nap. My first grade mind was connecting all of the dots even though to this point nobody had said anything about the events over the last three days.

We drove 40 miles to the cemetery for burial. Next I remember we were standing inside an outdoor facility, built for days like this, when the cold of winter was beyond what anyone at a graveside could stand. The casket was placed on the stand as Rev. Schnackenberg offered the rite of committal. After the “Amen,” the military offered their respects by playing “Taps” and folding the flag that had draped my father’s casket. An officer said the traditional words, “On behalf of the President of the United States of America….”

Much Needed Comic Relief

We left the outdoor facility to go to our cars. For some reason, the hearse was blocking the exit to the cemetery. Rev. Schnackenberg, in his flowing black robe, volunteered to move the hearse. Short in stature, apparently our beloved pastor must not have known how to move the seat forward: when he started the hearse, for some reason it lurched forward and then got stuck. Rev. Schnackenberg pressed hard on the gas pedal relentlessly and smoke was starting to rise. At the risk of you thinking bad things about my family, all of us burst out laughing. Rev. Schnackenburg seemed totally oblivious to the rising smoke and his futile attempt to get unstuck. Our laughter then turned into giggles that were very hard to control.

The Wisdom from Wibaux: Beyond the Vale of Tears and Grief

The Wisdom from Wibaux is that it not only takes a village to raise a child but it takes a whole town to help us grieve in our time of loss. The food, the hugs, the tears, the presence at the funeral service, the reassuring words – all of these are means of grace and comfort and without them we get stuck in our own valley of death.

Another nugget of Wisdom from Wibaux is that in the midst of sadness and tears, it is not only acceptable to laugh, but utterly essential. The serendipitous gift of Rev. Schnackenburg trying to drive the hearse only to get stuck with burning tires and rising smoke provided the opportunity to laugh and to release pent up emotion. On that day, I learned, without words, that tears and laughter are two sides of the same coin. A person who cannot cry well cannot laugh well and vice-versa. It is simply God’s design for the release of deep emotion.

Finally, another nugget of Wisdom from Wibaux is the gift of people like Rev. Schnackenburg. He was simple and sincere, and God used his innocent desire to move the hearse to move a family beyond the vale of tears and grief. I will always be grateful for the ministry of Rev. Schnackenburg. God uses unexpected people in the most unexpected of places to help us walk through the valley of the shadow of death.


–Rev. Jeff Gannon

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