Joel Kauffmann about 1985

Joel Kauffmann about 1985

I had planned to write about graduation.

Now it is otherwise.

I had planned to enjoy a riotous old age with this man as friend.

Now it is otherwise.

Our friend Joel, cartoonist, script writer, story teller, died May 8.

He was walking with his wife Nancy.

The hidden clot in his lung grabbed him.

He fell backward, hard, head on concrete.

A week later we friends came.

Happier Days: Our "small group" gathers in New York City, 2009. Joel center right.

Happier Days: Our “small group” gathers in New York City, 2009. Joel center right.

Carrying bouquets of stories.

Discovering so many other “best friends,” their own memory posies clutched tightly.

We cried and laughed. Laughed and cried. Together.

At College Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana,

We sang and played our hearts out,

Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Jesus Loves Me

Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow

Sudden death is a terrible thing. Sudden community, a balm in Gilead.

If you knew Joel, please leave a memory below. If you have lost a friend without warning, what did you do to assuage the loss? How have you continued to remember that friend? Where did you find comfort?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Richard Gilbert on May 13, 2015 at 11:05 am

    A lovely tribute, Shirley. One of my colleagues now lies dying, and every day I think of him, reminded that death is always all around. But so is life, as you so eloquently testify.

    • shirleyhs on May 13, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      Richard, sorry to hear that death is on your mind a lot also. Without it we fickle human beings would probably not enjoy or appreciate life. But with it, there is so much pain of separation. May your colleague find peace and all his friends find comfort. Good to see you here, friend.

  2. Kathleen Pooler on May 13, 2015 at 11:20 am

    Shirley, I’m so sorry to hear about the sudden loss of your dear friend. I lost my best friend to cancer at the age of 43. I keep her spirit alive through my stories and by staying in touch with her children and grandchildren. You have written a lovely tribute. May the precious memories console you.

    • shirleyhs on May 13, 2015 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks for bringing your friend’s life and death into this post, Kathy. And you remind me that one of the ways we can continue our care is through kindness to the bereft widow, children, and grandchild. I hope I can follow your excellent example.

  3. Elaine Good on May 13, 2015 at 11:35 am

    It was so interesting hearing all the stories from Joel’s adult life. My memories are mostly from childhood: holiday meals, Authors games, kick-the-can, hanging out at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and other cousin-ly activities.

    • shirleyhs on May 13, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      Elaine, I’m so sorry I didn’t get a chance to talk with you more at the funeral. I wasn’t aware that you were a cousin. Or if I knew, I didn’t remember it. Apparently Joel was the ringleader of his younger cousins adventures. That story did not surprise me at all!

  4. Janet Givens on May 13, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    “Carrying bouquets of stories.” A lovely vision in a beautiful tribute. He was lucky to have you as a friend, Shirley. Good grief, I believe, does not get assuaged. It gets felt, owned, and honored. My heart goes out to you in this time of great grief.

  5. shirleyhs on May 13, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    “Good grief, I believe, does not get assuaged. It gets felt, owned, and honored.” Thank you, Janet, for those words. You named exactly what I felt among the hundreds of people in that round space. We felt it, resisted it, and yet were upheld by each other, by our memories, and by our faith. Good grief continues. Your comment is a comfort.

  6. Merril Smith on May 13, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    Shirley, I’m so sorry to hear about the death of your dear friend. I love the words about friends gathering and “carrying bouquets of stories.” That is how your friend will be remembered as you grieve and after as you honor his memory. Just as flowers can smell sweet but prick you with a thorn, so will stories and memories of your friend delight you and make you sad. Wishing you all best.

    • shirleyhs on May 13, 2015 at 5:27 pm

      Merril, I’ve been pricked by my own bouquet many times in the last week. So true! Thanks for extending your empathy. You obviously know the combination of sorrow and joy.

  7. melodie davis on May 13, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    I remember soliciting various writers including Joel to submit creative scripts for various radio and TV spot projects by Mennonite Media. His scripts were frequently spot on, and even though, with his passing, others have praised his collaborative willingness to work on a team, I remember at one point wise Joel decided that he didn’t have time or patience for committees which ended up watering everything down, and politely bowed out of that particular process!

    Thanks for this opportunity. I did not know Joel well enough to write anything longer, but I know the Mennonite world especially will miss his gifts.

    • shirleyhs on May 13, 2015 at 5:24 pm

      Melodie, this comment is so like Joel! He hated committee work but he loved working with other creative professionals once the goals were set and there was freedom to make something new.

      The more people shared at the funeral, the clearer it became that Joel’s interests, skills and relationships covered a huge territory of genres, personalities, and theologies. He was one-of-a-kind and will be deeply missed indeed. Thanks for noting how well he knew himself.

  8. Laurie Buchanan on May 13, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Shirley — I am so very sorry for the loss of your friend. My condolences to Joel’s family and friends.

    The tribute you’ve shared in this post is heartwarming. I especially love the beautiful word pictures you painted: “bouquets of stories,” “memory posies,” and “Sudden community, a balm in Gilead.”

    • shirleyhs on May 13, 2015 at 7:34 pm

      Thank you, Laurie. Joel’s own words were always chosen with care. It wouldn’t seem right not to do the same in a tribute. Thank you for these condolences. I hope that Nancy and the family will be able to see your words themselves. They have been comforted by kind words coming from people they don’t know.

  9. Linda Rush on May 14, 2015 at 1:57 am

    Shirley, I am so sorry for your loss. In the early ’70s Joel and I were both working at the then Mennonite Mission Board offices in Elkhart back when we were just youngins. I had no idea where his work would take him. I also used to enjoy his Pontius’ Puddle cartoons. He was a remarkable guy.

    May God bless you and all the others who were close to him as you remember all the good times spent together.

    • shirleyhs on May 14, 2015 at 7:46 am

      Hi Linda, thank you so much for offering this window into Joel’s early life. He went on to several movie projects and his last work, the curriculum for The Museum of the Bible to open in Washington, DC, will reach many thousands of people. None of us knows where our lives end up. Nor when we will die. The message is clear. Cherish today!

  10. Wanda S. Maxey on May 14, 2015 at 10:34 am


    I’m so sorry for your loss. Thanks for the reminder to, “Cherish today.”

    • shirleyhs on May 14, 2015 at 10:40 am

      Thank you, Wanda, for this encouragement. You know from your own life how important it is to choose and cherish life. Glad to see you here.

  11. Tina Fariss Barbour on May 14, 2015 at 10:37 am

    Shirley, I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. I hope the stories and memories that you and your other friends hold and share will be comforting to you. People like your friend, who was so obviously loved and cherished, who gave so much while he was alive–they inspire me to try to be a better person, even when I never met them.

    • shirleyhs on May 14, 2015 at 10:42 am

      Thank you, Tina. I have felt the same way, vicariously, when the friends of friends die. Or when a famous person I have admired dies.

      What better tribute could there be than yours?

  12. Marian Beaman on May 14, 2015 at 10:57 am

    What I am noticing these days: my sympathy cards are starting to catch up to my birthday card purchases. It never used to be that way.

    As our mutual friend Elaine Mansfield repeats, “Love and grief are a package deal.” Maybe she said loss instead of grief, but it amounts to the same thing.

    I can so relate to these feelings and so can your loyal readers.

    • shirleyhs on May 14, 2015 at 11:06 am

      Yes, Marian. One of the thoughts that crossed my mind this past week was that statistically I’ve been headed in this direction all along. The more vibrant and talented the person, however, the less we really believe it can happen.

      Elaine’s profound understanding of grief has already helped me. When the time is right, I want to send my friend Nancy Elaine’s book, which has been a comfort to another recent widow in my life.

  13. Joan on May 14, 2015 at 11:38 am


    This kind of loss is the worst for those who are left behind. For him it sounds like it was easy and in that respect a good death.But there are still questions and “why” is perhaps the biggest one for you his friend and his family.

    Last year I lost a friend to suicide. It was unexpected and heartbreaking. It was not a good death. “Why?” was asked loud and clear at the memorial service. There were no answers.

    I have to believe that God takes us when we need to go, and that perhaps those left walking the earth have things to learn from such a jarring loss.

    Love is a very strange thing. It is glorious and horribly difficult all at the same time.

  14. shirleyhs on May 14, 2015 at 11:49 am

    Love is indeed glorious and difficult. Thank you, Joan, for recognizing the strange combination of pain and joy that come in this form of death. And I am sorry for your own loss of a friend to suicide. So many mysteries. We must take up the challenge to learn what we need to learn from any other death so that we can live our own lives as best we can. I certainly feel this challenge today.

  15. Tracy Lee Karner on May 14, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    Dear Shirley, I’m so sorry for your recent, sudden loss.

    Think this line is perfect: “Sudden death is a terrible thing. Sudden community, a balm in Gilead.”

    I’ve experienced the sudden death of family and friends, and it’s such a blow to the heart and mind, utter shock simply prevails until enough time has passed. I think communal laughter and tears give us the resilience to bear the shock, and prayer gives us strength to bear the grief.

    I lost a dear friend suddenly 2 years ago, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the reality, that she is not here.

    You’ve written a beautiful tribute.

    • shirleyhs on May 14, 2015 at 12:07 pm

      Thank you, dear Tracy, for these knowing words. May they provide you strength to bear your own losses. I think of memoirist Viki Noe’s term “friend grief.” She has named a reality for many.

  16. Sharon Lippincott on May 14, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    Beautifully written tribute. You got my attention with the opening! You and Stewart have my deepest sympathies.

    I lost one of my longest term friends a couple of years ago. She lived on the other side of the country and we were not in frequent contact, but always felt time had stood still when we did connect. My brother sent her obituary, just a couple of months after we last talked. She died of pneumonia after contracting rapid onset Alzheimer’s. That she did not linger as her amazing mind melted down was a blessing, but oh, how I miss knowing shes there.

    Her husband died a dozen years earlier of an aneurism during the two or three minutes it took her to walk out to the mailbox and return to the house. He had celebrated his 65th birthday the previous day. I was the first person she called! Oh, was that hard! I could not run to her side from 2500 miles away.

    Another friend took nearly a year to die from a tragic post-surgical negligence mistake left his brilliant mind intact in an inert body.Spending time with him in LA was a blessing, but one of the hardest things I’ve done.

    In all these cases, I will always remember these people and have tears in my eyes as I remember them. It’s never easy and it never goes away, but we rejoice that we were allowed whatever time with them we did have.

    • shirleyhs on May 14, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      “How I miss knowing she’s there.” Yes. That’s the way we feel about loved ones far away. Our friends in Goshen, Indiana, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, are all in that category.

      You are a few years older than I, Sharon, and those experiences must come with the aging territory, as Marian suggests above. So many ways to die — and none of them feels good to the surviving friends and family.

      Thanks for sharing these stories, Sharon. You’re part of the Balm in Gilead.

  17. Linda D. on May 14, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Shirley, I’m so sorry for the loss of your dear friend.

    Whether I’ve lost someone quickly or had ‘notice’ with a terminal diagnosis, it has been hard for me to reconcile myself to that disconnection. My heart has bonded with a vital, funny, intelligent and loving presence in my life and it is so hard for me to understand why the body that spirit is housed in…fades.

    If I am lucky enough to be able to say goodbye, I try to honor my friend’s journey. I ask them what kind of support they want and then try to honor that – often difficult when I am struggling with my own feelings of impending loss.

    When death comes suddenly, it’s like someone tore out a piece of my heart. I try to remind myself to be grateful that they didn’t suffer.

    But whether I lose friends and family quickly or not, I console myself with sharing their stories. Just as you have given me a glimpse of your friend, I try to pass on all the love and wisdom they have given me. My own kids ‘know’ their grandparents and great grandparents from the stories we have shared. They revel in what they see as shared traits with someone who died before they were even born. And I get to see joy light the eyes of the living – the same joy the departed gave me while they were still physically with me. They will always live in my heart.

    I hope that soon the pain of loss will fade and you will be able to laugh about all your shared experiences with Joel. Sorry for the long post – I guess you struck a chord.

  18. shirleyhs on May 14, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Linda, thank you so much for this set of reflections. You have written a powerful testimony to the value of telling our stories, which is the idea that ignited this blog in the first place. Your chord has chimed against all the other ones posted here.

    Joel’s granddaughter Elke has already comforted her family and their friends through the profound way she has spoken about talking with her Grandpa and with her reaction to the music and flowers at the funeral. His spirit lives on in her without a doubt!

  19. Sherrey Meyer on May 14, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Shirley, a lovely tribute to your friend. Sudden loss is hard to grasp. Only a minute ago, he was here, and now he’s gone. I lost a nephew suddenly. Because I was six when Joe was born, we were definitely contemporaries, more like brother and sister than nephew and aunt.

    Our phone rang late one Friday afternoon with the news Joe had been murdered with more wounds than I want to count now. But he was only 41 with a son who would have been with him at the time of the shooting, except…God scheduled the first day of school that day.

    It took our family a long time to come to grips with Joe’s death. We immersed ourselves in memories, funny stories, Joe’s accomplishments, and the goodness in his life, both as a husband, parent, and R.N. It was the only way to get through. Yet there’s not a labor day weekend that I don’t remember that phone ringing and the message at the other end of the line. And when I do, I can hear Joe say, “It’s OK. You’ve just gotta see this place where I am now!”

    • shirleyhs on May 14, 2015 at 4:47 pm

      I love your story, Sherrey. It’s so much like the one Joel’s loved ones are living in now. And yes, I think life will be forever changed. In our case, it’s Mother’s Day and our daughter’s anniversary that will be linked with this loss.

      I’m so sorry you lost your nephew Joe. I’m sure you were a loving presence to his wife and children all these years. We do what we can do. One day at a time.

  20. Marshall on May 14, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    A few years ago, I said that turtles from The Nut Shoppe were better than those from Olympia Candy Kitchen. Joel (and Don Yost) had taken Olympia’s turtles to Hollywood and all over. Joel liked to remind me often that I was wrong about which turtle was superior.

    • shirleyhs on May 14, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      I can just see him making his authoritative statement but with a twinkle in his eye. Taste was something he cared a lot about. Thanks for offering this story of everyday life, Marshall. The fact that he reminded you often was his way of saying he remembered you and YOUR taste.

  21. Elaine Mansfield on May 14, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    Thank you, Shirley. I’m sorry you lost a dear friend. Of course, I’m thinking of Joel’s wife. I’m glad she has this loving community of friends.

    • shirleyhs on May 15, 2015 at 8:31 am

      Thank you, Elaine. I will be sharing your book with Nancy at an appropriate time. Your story has helped many others!

  22. Marylin Warner on May 15, 2015 at 1:15 am

    I didn’t know Joel, Shirley, but now I feel like I knew him, and I’m so very sorry about what happened. He won’t be in your next group picture, but he’ll be there in spirit, tucked in your hearts.
    I lost a cousin to a sudden aneurysm. I had just seen him, robust and active, several months earlier. I was so grateful for that visit. You just never know.

  23. shirleyhs on May 15, 2015 at 8:34 am

    You just never know, indeed, Marylin. Our group has lived in different communities for the last ten years, so we haven’t seen Joel as often as we used to. The group in Goshen met the night before Joel’s fall, and had the usual good time full of stories and laughter. The shock to all has been visceral and will be long lasting. Thanks for your understanding comment.

  24. Kathleen Friesen on May 15, 2015 at 9:21 am

    I did not know Joel personally, but through the years laughed over his cartoons and writings – the kind of laughter that recognizes truth and a challenge.

    Like puzzle pieces that connect with others, the shapes of those who’ve died have left an imprint on my life. For me grief is a tearing away of the adjoining piece; then through intentional remembering, a gradual filling in of the imprint. That imprint is woven with things like love, disagreement, laughter, tears, and shared experiences. It is a recognition that I am changed by our connection. Who I am now includes that woven imprint. I am grateful to have known and loved many who have left imprints large and small, woven into my life.

    Wishing you peace, comfort from memories, and strength for the journey,

    • shirleyhs on May 20, 2015 at 9:47 pm

      What a beautiful image, Kathleen. I find it comforting to think of the imprint, a deep one, Joel left in my life and in the lives of friends and family. I want to weave that imprint over and over in the years to come.
      When I laugh, especially, I will think of him.

      Your words are wise and compassionate, spun from the truth of your own experience. May we continue to connect our pieces to others and pass along what others have given us.

  25. […] Then last week, looking for a photo of our friend Joel, […]

  26. John Yoder on May 30, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    Shirley, I think you have the right idea in writing about Joel in a poem. Somehow the logical steps of prose are not adequate to express the complex mixture of emotions his untimely death evokes for me — loss, sadness, anger, bewilderment, pain and confusion — a rich life cut short. A poem has a better chance to express the loss his death represents to his family, the church, and through his quirky humor, to the quest for sanity in a sometimes insane world. Why him? Why now? I’m pissed.

  27. shirleyhs on May 31, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    John, thank you for acknowledging the role of anger in your mixture of feelings about Joel’s death. I feel anger also, and I am sure that Nancy, Justin, and Julian must struggle with this emotion. Even after the funeral, it seems unreal that Joel isn’t with us.

    This week I found a letter he wrote to me when I turned 40. It starts with a joke, of course, and is full of signs of how much attention he paid to each of his friends.

    My condolences to you and June. We have lost a great friend.

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