Death, Modern Families and the Saga of Casey Kasem

This summer I've been following the dissonant end of life story of Casey Kasem. The family dynamics of his story caught my eye because I research the moral and spiritual lives of caregivers and grievers. I pay close attention to how the dynamics of blended families shape our stories of nurturing, dying, and living with loss. I also spent more than a decade in hospice care, where our care team sought to companion families, many like Kasem's, in finding sacred consonance in the midst of fear, pain, death, and grief, all inherently dissonant experiences.

Kasem was 82 years old when he died on June 15, 2014. My children know Kasem's iconic voice as Shaggy's from the cartoon Scooby Doo, but I remember him as the voice of my pre-teen Sunday afternoons. Over several hours, he counted down the hits on American Top 40. I had my tape recorder at the ready with the record/play/pause buttons depressed in order to tape my favorite songs, which would then include his baritone patter over the intro bars. I looked forward to the "Long Distance Dedications," and I didn't stop listening until I received his closing benediction to "keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."

In the last year his renown shifted from music to his family due to the battles between his three children from his first marriage and his second wife of more than thirty years, Jean Kasem, who at one point referenced King David and Psalm 59:13-14 when she threw raw meat into the street when her stepdaughter came with an ambulance to remove Kasem from her care. The heated disagreements and lawsuits evolved over the last year punctuated by conflicts over whether or not he should be hydrated and fed, where he should reside, and now two months after his death, over where he should be buried.

Kasems' family, though dramatic, is not unique. Today four-in-ten Americans have a step relative in their families. When I look at who is sitting in the sanctuary pews on a Sunday morning I would be wise to note that at least half of them may be stepparents, single parents, or children of divorce of all ages. Many face or will face variations of the Kasem family saga, and they will need my support as their pastor as well as the support of the whole congregation.

This summer, our congregation has been making its way through Genesis in our first lesson readings. July and now August has focused on Jacob's blended family, an ancient Real Housewives of Haran. At first, the particulars of his story concerning polygamy, marrying sisters (Leviticus 18:18 will outlaw it) and women treated as property sound foreign to our modern sensibilities. However, the tensions Jacob negotiates between a first wife, second wife, surrogate wives, siblings, half siblings, and other relatives over family identity, religious expression, money and property resonate with today's battles over custody, child support, and which values and routines will take precedence between first families and subsequent blended ones. Kasems' family would be normal in Haran!

Jacob, as the connecting parent and spouse in it all, does his best to name them all as one family in order to create harmony. As I've seen in our research of blended families, the connector parent must take the lead in playing that role while a high level of maturity and self-sacrifice is demanded of the current spouse and ex-spouse: a critical lesson for modern families to absorb.

Jacob spends his lifetime in harmonizing work, and he earns his name, Israel, not only for the ways that he will wrestle with God but also for the ways he will wrestle with the cacophony of his family. Kasem too wrestled with holding his family together by completing health care directives in 2007 that clarified what role he wanted his grown children and his wife to play in his care. However, as his ability to amend or clarify those wishes declined over the last six years, the family wrestled and sued over how to interpret them.

And so I wondered, 'What does harmony look like in dissonant families when so often things fall apart again and again over the years?'

This summer I read the novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The story features Renee Michel, a 54-year-old concierge of a ritzy Paris apartment building, and Paloma, a 12-year-old resident of the building.

Told in their voices, they reflect on the dissonance between and within the residents of their building, and they tell an existential story reflecting on class, the purpose of life, and beauty as a path to moments of consonance. Renee spends the novel holding in tension two identities, one public and false where she publically and mindlessly serves the upper class and one private and true where she lives for intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of wisdom. A new resident to the building challenges her to reconcile these two worlds. Towards the middle of the story, Renee visits this new resident and upon entering his apartment she beholds a small still-life painting that entrances her.

"...a feeling of consonance, a feeling that this is exactly the way it ought to have been arranged. This in turn allows us to feel the power of objects and of the way they interact, to hold in our gaze the way they work together and the magnetic fields that attract and repel, the ineffable ties that bind them and engender a force, a secret inexplicable wave born of both the tension and the balance of configuration--this is what inspires the feeling of consonance." (202)

This moment is fleeting but its memory becomes a comfort and source of hope. Renee's 12-year-old counterpart, Paloma, is overwhelmed by the meaningless dissonance of the world and she wrestles the entire story with whether or not she will commit suicide by setting her apartment ablaze on her 13th birthday. She spends her final year of life looking for reasons not to do so, and one moment of consonance will suffice.

"I have finally concluded, maybe that's what life is about: there's a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It's as if those strains of music always within never...I won't commit suicide and I won't burn a thing...because from now on I'll be searching for those moments of always within never. Beauty, within this world." (325)

Unexpected moments of beauty can create glimmers of hopeful consonance in both fictional and biblical worlds. For example, Jacob will claim a moment of consonance in a dream of angels connecting heaven and earth (Gen. 28:10-16), Leah will proclaim consonance when she thanks the Lord by naming a son Judah, (Gen. 29:35) and after the family's redemption from famine and Jacob's death, Joseph will reflect back on a lifetime of dissonance and see a plan for divine consonance (Gen. 50:19-21).

Although the public reporting does not highlight any moments of harmony for the Kasem family, I pray that like fictional and biblical blended families and worlds they have had moments of private consonance and hope, of always within never, of beauty within this world. And if not yet, that those moments come within their lifetimes.

You can follow Rev. Amy Ziettlow on Twitter @RevAmyZ