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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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