In case I’ve given the impression that I’ve got this grief thing all under control – I want to set the record straight. Not every day is sunshine and roses. There are moments when the wind is literally sucked right out of me as my mind settles on the reality that Brooke is gone. But is it even real? Isn’t she just away at school? Did my phone really ring? I know it did but somehow the mind doesn’t always process it. Just the other day, as part of a litany of routine questions at the doctor’s office, I was asked, “How many living children do you have?” Two. No, wait. That’s not right. That’s NOT right.
In the days following the recent passing of Former First Lady, Barbara Bush, I ran across this passage:
The death of a child is so painful, both emotionally and spiritually, that I truly wondered if my own heart and spirit would ever heal. I soon learned that I could help myself best by helping others. It wasn’t until Robin died that I truly threw myself into volunteer work. That precious little girl left our family a great legacy. I know George and I care more for every living person because of her. We learned firsthand the importance of reaching out to help because others had reached out to us during that crucial time. (Barbara Bush, bereaved mother (Tyler, Texas TCF Newsletter, February 2005))
If you didn’t know (and I didn’t until this past week), the Bushes lost a three-year-old daughter to leukemia in the early 50’s. Mrs. Bush lived with that grief for over sixty years. More than sixty years . . . . And, even in recent interviews when asked about Robin, she couldn’t conceal the pain. Yet, from all appearances, Mrs. Bush managed to live in the wake of her loss.
Grief is a lifelong process. Yet, grief need not be its own death sentence. In fact, suffering is the sword by which death was ultimately defeated.
Grief is a lifelong process. And, it should be. Don’t get me wrong. There are minor grievances along the way that we should let go. What I’m talking about here is real loss – death and grievous sin – the things that we dare not imagine because they are too dark and too ugly. We don’t allow the mind to settle there until they become part of our own realities. The experiences that leave a mark – deep, intense, permanent. The experiences that become part of our identity, and they should. If something were to happen to us, they’d identify us by these unique slashes on our souls. Like a dental record or fingerprints, no two souls are alike. No two slashes strike the same depth.
I am not the same person who woke up on March 16, 2017. Granted, I’d go back in a heartbeat in exchange for the return of Brooke. I’d gladly pull the covers back over my eyes and heart, safely detaching me from the presence of profound pain and suffering. Because Brooke’s return in this lifetime is not an option, I am forced to make a choice: heal or be healed.
After the deaths of my brothers and my father, the raw wounds left me more sensitive -for a while. Like a shoe rubbing against a blistered heel, I could not ignore my own suffering or the suffering of those around me. Yet, I had a “Keep-Calm-and-Carry-On” attitude. I thought that “getting over” the pain and healing would again make life bearable. And, it did. Over time, the wounds healed. Scabs and scars calloused over the rawness. I was aware that a spot existed that was different than the rest, but I could walk comfortably again.
What I am learning from Brooke’s passing is that maybe it is better to limp along. Maybe we are not supposed to just carry on. Maybe callouses are not best for our overall well-being. Perhaps, we should not endeavor so mightily to scrub away the salty stains of heartfelt tears. The hurts that have the power to scratch a new identity into our souls have the same power to help us to be healed. The rub is that to be healed we cannot allow scabs and scars to build or to alleviate the tenderness. As Nicholas Wolterstorff observes, “[Jesus] who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds.” (Lament of a Son, 92) We must keep our wounds. We must maintain a tender rawness about us – it’s that tenderness that senses the suffering around us.
When others doubt that they can traverse the sharp rocks of this graveled life, we should be prepared to extend a hand – displaying our own wounds, inviting others in to touch the unhealed spaces. This process, this awkward dance is the path to being healed.
Christ’s resurrection challenges us to play our own part in overcoming death. His suffering invites us to suffer alongside Him and our neighbor. When we accept the invitation and choose kindness, love, tenderness, mercy, compassion, faith, and hope, we crush death. When like Mrs. Bush we care more and help more, we destroy death’s sting. We are being healed. “[I]f from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death won. Then death, be proud.” (Wolterstorff, Lament of a Son, 92)
Therein lies the real challenge. Are we really prepared to allow ourselves to suffer in order that death be destroyed? Can we resist our own healing in order to be healed? Can we bear to bare our souls? How do we live with the tension?
Scars are more comfortable. We’d rather bandage the scabs beneath the safety of a mask: “PTA Mom Mask” “Manager of a Big Firm Mask,” “Stellar Volunteer Mask,” “World’s Best Little League Coach Mask,” or maybe “Blogger Mask.” Sometimes it is so easy to disconnect my own reality from the words that I type. More often than not – these words are meant for me. That another may find comfort in the same words is merely collateral. I need to be reminded that there is hope. I need to hear that it’s okay to cry. I need to hear that it’s okay to laugh. I need to be reminded that to be healed I may have to rip away tender new skin so that the wound remains exposed. I may have to let another really feel my pain.
We must set aside the masks. When Jesus allayed Thomas’ doubt, he wasn’t sporting his “I Can Heal Leprosy Mask.” No, Jesus presented to Thomas transparent proof of his brokenness – the very remnant of his humanity.
Will we carry the remnants of our humanity with us when we go? When we are reunited with our loved ones, how will they recognize us? How will we recognize them? Will we recognize our beloveds by their eye color or the color of their hair? Or will we finally see one another as we really are – souls bared to reveal the shards of sin and suffering cobbled together the way an artist welds shards into a tapestry of glass, the winding cracks charting our grand design? Yes, I think that is it. We will be identified in heaven by our soul prints. Our tears will be wiped away, but those salty stains that distinguish one soul from another will remain ours to share forever.