As Softness Breaks Down My Walls

As 2015 began, I chose two simple words to be my mindset for the year - "be soft." Little did I know that three months later, those words would have already made such an impact on my year.

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Years of multiple losses had taken their toll on me. I'd lost many things in myself that I once held dear. Through the wonderful reflection brought to me via my Grief Share group, I realized that I had experienced losses for which I had never grieved. I had hardened from bitterness and hurt. I didn't trust God, frequently asking myself "Why would a loving God let all this happen?" I stopped trusting in His character, and I lost more than my soft heart - I lost my voice.

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The hardening started with loss - three losses within three months when I was 18 years old.

The first was dear Sara. She changed my life dramatically in the time I knew her. The October before she passed, we sat in her red Buick, her shaved head gleaming in the noon sun. She had noticed that I neglected to wear my engagement ring, gently loving on me as I cried and used dashboard napkins to wipe the tears.  The next week I broke off the engagement, not because he wasn't the great man, but he wasn't the man for me. During our car conversation, she had taught me that love should be exciting, not something to hide.

A few months later I watched her frail body sitting at the alter. She had found that beautiful love. They only had each other for a short time. Just five months later, she passed, and my heart broke.

The day after Sara's funeral, I walked with my friend through the mall in our black clothes. My mom called me to tell me that my second mother, my dearest youth leader, Elaine, had just passed from cancer. I drove that stretch of road between the Dakotas, where the plains stretch out in a seemingly endless mundane landscape of flat field after flat field, tears running down my cheeks, soaking my t-shirt. 

I met the members of my church youth group in the sanctuary, and we sat in small circles of friendship on the floor. We held hands, prayed, and cried.

That summer I was blessed with the amazing friendships of the young women who lived in a small house called to ministry on the university campus. They made me hot coco on the nights I couldn't sleep and found myself drenched with tears. We plunged ourselves into home improvement projects like painting and cleaning. I sat for days watching movies with one roommate after she had surgery. The fact that I was never alone there made my days better, and I eventually told campus leadership that I would not return to be the president of my dorm that year. Instead, I moved in with my friends adopting the storage closet in that white, crippled house as my sanctuary.

The other hours of my days that summer were spent in the hospital with my grandfather, watching as he slowly lost his limbs. I was perhaps still so raw from the previous losses of those dear women, but his pain seemed very real to me.  I distinctly remember spending my 19th birthday at the hospital with my mom, grandmother, and aunt, seeing his tears of fear as they rolled him away for the second leg amputation.

He survived until an October day when Grandma couldn't wake him up from a nap in his favorite front room chair. That day I was at the dance studio working on props and choreography for our Nutcracker performance in November. My dad called me and told me the news. I sat paralyzed on the changing room carpet, wetting it with tears. Grandpa loss created a hole in my life that couldn't be filled with the loon-printed blanket he left me.

I didn't wash the blanket for months. I probably should have, but it smelled like him - I didn't want to forget how he smelled.

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I held on to my faith somehow through this. I think because I was three years young in my relationship with God, and it was still exciting to me. My heart broke for the children of the world, and I eventually left for Africa. It was an escape of sorts. I returned to the United States with wounds and confusion of another kind and was not prepared to reintegrate into our culture. I took a semester off college, only to start school again and find myself in another painful situation - brokenhearted and abandoned. (I am not ready to share that whole story yet.)

Sometime after Africa the bitterness started taking over me and hardening my heart. Then, it was shame, regret, and fear. Every so often, I would experience glimpses of softness that felt so much like the real me, but I would harden again like play clay left in open air. God felt further and further away. My prayers became much harder, when I prayed at all. The words in the Bible read like the words coming from the mouth of Charlie Brown's teacher. I never let go of my faith; I just didn't feel it.

Despite the hardness that had come over me, I did open my heart to my very best friend and was married. Our first years of marriage were filled with broken hallelujahs. The pain of almost losing my life and losing my life-giving nature as a woman seemed to be the final loss that calcified my heart. For several years, I simply did not know who I was under that hard exterior. I was exhausted and didn't know why. I had trouble remembering things and forming my thoughts. I had emotional outbursts. Day after day I would look in the mirror and not know who the woman was looking back at me. At the time, I thought it was the sudden hormone loss or insanity, but today I know that these issues were all symptoms of deep, deep grief.

No one in my life had ever spoken openly about grief. The closest I had come to seeing public grieving in action was while I was in Africa, and the loved ones of those lost would wail. I am sharing all of this so openly because I want the grieving to know what grief is and that they are not alone in their experience of it. The experience of God feeling distance as one walks through grief is a normal experience.

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This last year when I lost my dad, I felt like the loss would keep me following the same path that had begun 10 years earlier - making me harder and harder. There were days soon after his death when I was not a nice person, my pain was unbearable, and I lashed out. There were days when I didn't want to do anything. I still have days when I spend the duration of my waking moments with tears in my eyes. But, something different has happened this time. In the midst of all the pain and the "why" questions, I have found the soft - love, peace, and kindness.

In the past, my dad was always the person I leaned on when life was difficult and I was struggling. He never provided me with many answers, but he was always there, standing beside me with his calm and steady presence. With my dad gone, I had to turn to God, and I have started to realize that God is the one who I never have to fear will leave me. There is reason that the Bible compares our relationship with God to that of marriage. He is not that far away, booming God of The Ten Commandments movie. He is a relational God, who loves us and wants to be loved. I can rest in that love daily and find some comfort. I can't build walls around myself for fear of who I will lose again. I have let love be the center of my life and continue to open my heart to others. I have to accept that though other losses on this earth will happen, He will never leave me, and His love is everlasting.

My walls have began to break down, brick by brick. For the first time in years, I can read the Good Book and actually connect with the words. For the first time in years, I can pray a heartfelt prayer. Though the questions have not left me and I still have days of pain, I have found that when I am searching for answers, I can find them in the shadow of His wings - in His love, His promise of protection, and His character (Psalm 17). I have to rest in the truth of who He is - that He is a shield for those who take refuge in Him, a rock who gives me strength, the lover of my soul, my support, and compassionate beyond measure. I believe without a doubt that when I cry, He cries with me and wipes away my tears. 

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He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane
I am a tree
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these
Afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I realize just how beautiful you are and
How great Your affections are for me


And Oh, How He loves us so
Oh, How He loves us
How He loves us so

"How He Loves Us", John Mark McMillan

 

In the Moments that Hurt

The journey of grief is such that your mostly happy life can be interrupted unexpectedly by sudden moments of pain. My pain most often surfaces after conversations with my loved ones who are hurting and who don't know how to go on after this death. My love is deep, and my heart aches for those I love so dearly. After these conversations, I feel helplessness, and I don't know what I can do to help them. So, I sit in my car and play Aaron Strumpel's Twenty Three over and over:

Arise Oh Lord
Lift up Your eyes
Don’t forget I’m helpless

Oh You lead me to waters and pastures so green
Oh You pour out Your oil and choose goodness and mercy for me

No I will not be in want

You’re with me
I will not fear
You comfort me
I will not fear

The song speaks to my heart during those moments when I am in want, when I fear, and when I feel helpless. I can sing through the song five times and through tearful eyes know that God is with me. God commanded me to love, and that love is the reason I grieve. I cannot give up on love for fear of grieving again. Instead, I should rest in my grief, beside waters and pastures green, and realize that grief is merely the consequence of opening arms and heart wide to love others. I have done exactly what Jesus told us was the greatest commandment: Love one another. There is no shame in grief; there is only love, compassion, and eventually, peace.

 

Choosing to Connect

The bathroom smelled of mildew and strawberry shampoo. I sat on the floor with my journal and pen, legs crossed, listening to the sound of the heat whistling through the metal floor vent. The small space was safe and private, remarkably different from the public openness of a blog. Earlier in the evening, I avoided listening to my words by drowning them out with the sound and thoughtlessness of television.

"Where are my words?" I thought. They hide and pop up in unexpected places, like the car and the bathroom. It becomes easy to drown them out with noise and busyness.

Why do we need words? What meaning could there possibly be in them?

I struggle continuously with the desire to share story and connect with others through my writing and the desire to keep to myself. I know that part of that desire for privacy comes from fear.

Can the power of words overcome my fear?

Words connect to each other by joining forces in a way that changes reality: increasing awareness, closing gaps, and invading the emptiness. Words enter the silent spaces of the mind, even when we don't want them to. Words connect people through story and meaning that transcends boundaries.

Madeleine L'Engle said that we should use storytelling to "keep people from falling away from one another." Story helps us find, develop, and remember relationships. Story keeps us together. Through it, we are able to relive the moment, capturing its emotional qualities instead of just the facts.

There will be critics - people who ask why we write and think we are foolish for sharing so much with the world.

Should that stop us from sharing and connecting through story? What is more important?

Because writing is so important to me, I have decided to post every Wednesday on my writing journey. I hope to encourage other writers and facilitate helpful discussion through the questions asked in these posts. Thank you for sharing your stories and connecting with me!

The World is Different Now

Fault lines fracture the Earth's crust. Some are tiny and barely noticeable.

But, the quakes bring us to our senses. In just a moment, rocks shift, and those invisible fractures create an inescapable event. Buildings fall. Damage is done. Lives change.

Losses are like fault lines. 

The world is different now. Someone important to me is gone and will never be again. It's a tiny change to those who didn't know him, a tiny crack in the surface of the world. One person is gone out of the seven billion that populate the earth. It's a change that is barely noticeable to most of the population.

But for those who loved him, the world has seemingly shifted off its axis. The fault line created by his loss is not just a tiny crack; it is the San Andreas Fault. Damage has been done. Lives have been changed forever.

The world is different.

Spinning off its axis, nothing seems to be the way it should be, the way we thought it would be.

As for me, my entire being has been split into two, down to my core. I was cutting vegetables for dinner and was caught off guard by the single realization "my world is different." Even the simple actions like cooking feel different. The floor in the kitchen isn't stable. It's tilted and sinks in spots. I lose my vision of what I'm doing because all I want is to talk to him about vegetables. I want to talk to him about anything.

He's gone, and the world is different without him.

These ambushes of grief come to us like earthquakes, in quiet and sudden moments. They catch us off guard. One moment I am shopping with a friend, laughing and smiling, and the next moment I see a stand of plaid, quilted jackets (the same jacket my dad would have worn), and my heart hurts. 

The tears fall from these sudden moments of memory.  

Grief exists. Mourning is necessary because the world is different now.

Many parts of the day are the same, but in the intermittent spaces, there is a whisper "the world is different." The whisper hits you like a strong, cold wind. Your breath is gone. Your eyes sting and water. You miss them. You wish the world could go back to the way it was, but your world has changed forever.

What we all face now is this: How we will live in this new world without the one we love.

For me you are only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.
But if you tame me we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me and I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.
— The Little Prince


The Cottage

What is first seen as a loss is now seen as gain. For he finds solitude, not in far off, quiet places; he creates it out of himself, spreads it around him, wherever he may be, because he loves it and slowly he ripens in this tranquility. For the inner process is beginning to unfold, stillness is extraordinarily important.
— Janwillem van de Wetering

The first time I saw the cottage, I thought it was quaint and cute. The yellow and teal painted woodwork appealed to my sense of whimsy. We made tea in a red kettle on the stove.  It made me think of a time when life was simple. I thought it would be the perfect place to stay for a month: simple, tranquil, and vintage. However, within the first few hours, all I felt was worry and turmoil.

I thought it was the cottage. It was too small for a month. The kids would fight too much and not get enough sleep. One of them might fall down the stairs at night. The wiring seemed ancient; this place could start on fire. The bed wasn't comfortable. The ceilings were too low. These and many other thoughts ran through my mind and made the first, and last, night in the cottage a sleepless one. The next day we moved out into a more spacious house for the month. I thought the move would make a difference and that I would be OK . However, just a few days into the new rental, and I was a mess again.

Whatever strength that had held me up for the last three months wasn't there anymore. I couldn't be strong anymore. I couldn't hold it together anymore. I realized that the cottage wasn't the problem at all. It was me. I buried my grief in packing boxes, under new experiences and new places, and covered it with the busyness that surrounds the home buying process. Now life is simple again, and we are just sitting, waiting for the actions of moving into our new house to begin. I have nothing with which to distract myself, so I can finally grieve.

Grief can feel agonizing, but I have to push through it. I find myself feeling uncomfortably in pain more than I'm not. Sometimes I wish for something to come up, so I can do something that will distract me and take the pain away. But, I know that experiencing this and letting myself finally feel is good, necessary work.

I didn't realize how necessary it is to "pause" during the grief process, but it's true. We try to hid our grief under so many things. Sometimes that is by necessity in order to get through the things we have to get through at the time. However, someday we have to stop and do the hard work of grieving. It is hard, painful, and overwhelming, but it must be done.

What I leave you with is this: Try not to distract yourself or keep yourself too busy after you've experienced personal loss. It is so important to take the time to "pause" and work through your grief. It won't be easy. It will be agonizing at times. Please don't give up. Come here when you are weary and know that you are not alone.