Eighteen years ago this week, I went through devastation that fully demolished my life. The person I was before this event no longer exists, because she has been fractured into a million tiny pieces. But my story doesn’t end with a mess on the floor and shards to sweep into the trash. The shards are being reassembled and glued back together. (Present tense, y’all… the process is ongoing and won’t be finished this side of heaven.)
Have you ever tried to piece back together a piece of pottery or a ceramic item you dropped on the floor? No matter how hard you search, there are some fragments that you won’t ever find. So you use the pieces you DO have and assemble them into their original shape. My life is like that: there are some fragments that will never be glued back into place. They disappeared and the holes they left are noticeable and present.
On October 26, 1996, my big brother Jackson died of rhabdomyosarcoma. He was 26 years old and in the prime of his life: a take-charge, good-looking, lively, honest, loyal, funny and driven man. I was 22 years old, and had spent twenty-two years in the shadow of this larger-than-life person. Even though he had been fighting cancer for 14 months, I was somewhat in denial that the cancer would win. There was nothing my brother couldn’t do, so why would defeating cancer be any different? And then the phone rang and a crying voice said my name, and I knew my brother was gone.
If I could get a do-over of 10/26/96... if I could relive the entirety of 1996… if I could even go back to 9/26/96 (the day I last saw him alive)… these are questions that still haunt me. I wonder how I would choose to spend my days differently, and then I think about some distant day that has yet to happen in my future. Will I wish I had spent 2014 differently? What about this season of my life, or even today, and this specific instant?
That is the question that has percolated and floated to the surface of my heart for 18 years now. Losing my brother deconstructed the life I had, the one that was based on one simple premise: tomorrow will always come.
Jackson’s death stole that from me. For a few years, it robbed me of hope and peace and life. I shut down my heart, did a smidge above the bare minimum required for living (showed up at work, planned outings with friends, called home to my parents, watched movies with Dan), and skated through the world as a surface-y person, maybe going an inch deep now and then. There was no depth in my life, because depth required me to feel and feeling required me to cry because grief was the only feeling I felt.
So I stopped feeling for about four years. The odd thing is I know I “lived” during that time, because I have photo albums to show the places I visited and friends I saw and karaoke bars I sang at (yikes!), but those memories only exist in my head as snapshots of events. I don’t have the “experience” memories from actually being there. When I turned off my feelings so I couldn’t feel grief, it means I turned off happiness as well. I turned off the ability to be present and savor life and actively engage in growth and relationships. I was married to Dan, but my tender-hearted husband hardly had a wife. I was phoning in our marriage and every other position I held in life as friend, daughter, sister, neighbor, and coworker.
You can guess how this ended: with a crash. As much as I sometimes wish this weren’t true, the fact is I wasn’t made to NOT feel. I wasn’t made to live on the surface of a world full of mile-deep caverns and caves. It was only a matter of time before I crumbled and EVERY.FEELING.CAME.OUT: sadness, anger, despair, wretchedness, remorse, regret, and isolation. But, this... THIS is where God picked me up after I sat on my bed and cried out, begging Him to rescue me. I gave up, and gave Him an ultimatum: “If You really DO exist, You gotta fix this. Please!”
It took a long time, because I didn’t trust God. I assumed He wasn’t who He said He was, because if He was, He would’ve saved my brother. I blamed God for letting Jackson die and, in my head, that was the same as actually killing my brother. If you don’t step in to effect change in a terrible situation, that makes you an accomplice, right?
Remember that broken pottery I already mentioned? That was me. God had to start gluing me back together a piece at a time. He started by immediately answering that ultimatum I gave Him. That was piece #1. Piece #2 came when He helped my unemployed self find a job [in a ministry – that God sure is a joker, isn’t He?!]. Piece #3 (and a few others) came when He would – literally – drop scripture into my lap that described who He is and what He stands for. A couple more pieces came when He brought committed Christ followers into my life who could see through my inch-deep façade. A HUGE piece came when one of those people connected me to a lifesaving Christian counselor. Slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, He took my brokenness and bound it back together with His special formula Krazy Glue.
And that Krazy Glue was so strong that when I was knocked on the floor again a few years later by postpartum depression and the pain of losing both of my parents within six months of each other, it wasn’t as catastrophic as it had been when Jackson died. In fact, it turned out to be beautiful in a messy-masterpiece-kind-of-way.
That question, that wondering from 18 years ago… the one about how I would spend my todays? It’s still there. I don’t consciously think about it every day, but God has woven it in the fabric of my being. Over time, He taught me how to live my life and feel it again. And what’s more, He taught me how to redeem that pain by gifting it to others when they are suffering. When I say “gifting” it to others, I literally envision holding that brokenness of myself in my cupped hands and sitting beside a grieving person and showing it to them, sharing it with them. I am a living, breathing testimony to 2 Corinthians 1:4, which says:
He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.
The first part of that verse is what God did: He comforted me. He nestled each broken piece of me in His hands and showed me how to love and live again. He gave me hope and a future, and brought me back to Him. The second part of that verse is what I do in response to the first: I give others the same comfort God has given me.
I usually do it in little ways that aren’t very noticeable or remarkable. I’m not going to win a medal for them, but I know my Papa is proud of me when I give these little gifts. However, this week I get to live this out in a VERY noticeable way. It causes me a little anxiety, but every time I feel anxiety bubble in my stomach, I hear the words “cast your cares” in my head. So, I’m casting my cares and asking God to use this for His glory.
My story is going public through a podcast my magnificent friend Stephanie asked me to record with her. This “Call to Courage” podcast is available on October 30 through iTunes and on the www.couragepodcast.com website. As I write this post, I have not yet heard the podcast and THAT is what causes me anxiety! I remember recording it, but I also remember chiding myself inside my head as I was recording it, telling myself all kinds of nagging motherly things: Speak clearly! Stop saying “um” and “for me…” because they are the hot dog fillers of verbal communication! Project your voice better! Stop talking in circles! and all manner of mean things
I we say to ourselves.
I’m anxious to hear me telling my story, because writing it down is vastly different than speaking it. I can only hope you hear God more than you hear me!
Father, I ask that You use my story to speak to someone out there who is going through loss and heartache right this very instant. May they hear the pain in my story and receive courage to ask You for help. I pray for the people who are hoarding the broken pieces of their hearts, convinced that You are a lie and the healing You bring is a placebo. Help them to hear Your truth. Physically put people in their lives who can share their pain and carry their burdens to You. And I pray for the person who will help with the carrying, because helping with the carrying means they’ve likely ached too. May You help that person continue to heal as he or she pours the grief out as a priceless offering to You. Thank You, God, for binding the brokenhearted and making beauty from our ashes. Amen!