Nobody wants to be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to them. Nobody wants to be a sad story, I certainly don’t. But much of my current life is because of the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. A guest on one of my favorite podcasts framed it this way, “I love to talk about healing; but in order to understand my healing you have to understand my trauma.” Or as my therapist put it, “you can’t expect people to celebrate where you are if you haven’t shown them where you’ve been.” So we’re going to talk about my trauma, but we’re not going to stay there-we want to get to the good stuff.
I also want to clarify from the start that there is not some magic place where I am ‘healed.’ I am in a radically different place than I was in the days immediately following my husband’s death. I have a lot of good days. But there are also some really bad days. And many good days that have unbelievably hard moments. This is my story so far. To be continued, not the end.
On June 6, 2019 I came home to find my husband had quietly but deliberately taken his own life. As I got out of my car I saw my dad sitting on the back steps. He had come over to help with some project but couldn’t find Jeff anywhere. I was annoyed but not alarmed. I walked into the kitchen, set my bags down, and picked up a letter that had been left on the table. After reading the first line I knew it was a suicide note but all I could say is, “What is this? What is this? What is this?” Immediately I felt enormous pressure on my chest, I was capable of only the shallowest breaths and I had lost the ability to stand. Time seemed to be both speeding up and moving in slow motion. Next thing I knew my mom was there, and then somehow my pastors were in my kitchen. My pastor asked some question about how I was functioning and I said something like, “I am going to fucking kill him.”
Even now I don’t have the words to express the fury that was unleashed in that moment. I had to call a mother and father and tell them that their son was dead. To call siblings and tell them their brother had taken his own life. Suddenly the police were there investigating and I sat with my family and Jeff’s family until I had to go to the police station for questioning. The questions ranged from procedural to insensitive to downright offensive and after hours at the station I was finally allowed to go back home. By the time I went upstairs to go to bed it was nearly midnight.
I hope none of you have to experience a day like that. And since I hope none of you have experienced this type of trauma, let me explain what it feels like to go to bed alone after a day like that. You are exhausted in body and spirit but you cannot sleep. You hope that you go to sleep and maybe just don’t wake up-that would be easier than facing your new reality. You are surrounded by physical proof of a life that was lived together but your head is starting to realize that that life is gone. You don’t remember when you last ate but the thought of food is repulsive. You are furious and devastated, filled with both rage and sorrow. You open your mouth to scream or cry but all that comes out is this guttural sound you didn’t know humans were capable of making.
And even in the midst of all of this, there is a part of your brain that seems to be operating in a completely different reality and it is that part of your brain that thinks, “guttural, that’s a really great word you don’t get many opportunities to use.’ And that part of your brain thinks, “remember this afternoon you found that tick on the dog-someone needs to take care of that.” And you realize that someone will have to be you, because now there is no one else. You are still living. Life keeps moving forward even though you feel like you have been shattered into a million pieces and there is no way you could ever be put back together again.
On that first night I felt God’s presence so clearly. I knew God was there, wanting to hold me. And that made me feel so incredibly pissed off. “Is this the best you can do God?” “Oh you want to hold me? No (insert expletive of your choice) thank you.” “I don’t want to be held-I want my husband back. Where were you today? How could you have let this happen? How dare you show up here now-it’s too late now.”
Those were all real and valid reactions. I spent the next year grappling with those very questions, to be completely honest I’m still working through a few of them. But what was important in that moment is that after I took all of my fury and threw it at God, God did not leave. Because the Lord is near to the brokenhearted. Even those who spend all night screaming at God.
Looking back now I see how closely I was held in those first days and weeks. Being held let me speak at Jeff’s funeral. Being held kept me safe in travel at a time when I would pack a suitcase and immediately forget what was in it. Being held looked like a meal train that was set up for me even when I insisted I didn’t need it. Being held was family who opened their doors to me without hesitation and provided a safe place for me to run away to. Being held looked like stacks of cards and a funeral that didn’t have enough seats for everyone who came. Being held looked like coming to church but hiding in the choir lot where there were always tissues and tootsie pops waiting for me. Being held looked like the steady presence of friends who were way out of their depth but showed up anyways.
Being held meant I could have the assurance from the very beginning that somehow I would come out of this. Being held showed me a savior who didn’t just care about me when I taught Sunday school and sang in the choir. Being held showed me a God who could take all of my rage and all of my sorrow and still want to stay next to me. A God who would hold me until I was ready to walk again.