I am an enneagram 8. (Click here to learn more about the enneagram-I have found it to be an amazingly helpful tool) For those of you who don’t know, the two most common nicknames for an enneagram 8 are the challenger or the confronter.
So that was the personality type I brought to my grief journey. I was not going to be a passive participant-I was going to be the challenger. I do not love exploring my feelings or having touchy-feely conversations but I read a quote that said, “you either handle your grief or it handles you.” Well it certainly was not going to handle me so I spent the summer actively confronting my grief. I spent countless hours in therapy, filled page after page in my journal, read book after book, and listened to any podcast that seemed relevant.
I was confronting my grief and it was so hard. Losing someone to suicide complicates your grief. This was not the peaceful passing of someone who had lived a full life and said all their goodbyes. This was not a gentle passing into the life to come. This was not a good death. This was a terrible shock. A death that blind sighted everyone, leaving so many unanswered questions. “How could I have missed the signs?’ “How could I have helped? What did I do wrong? I thought we were happy.”
All of these questions are gut reactions, gross oversimplifications of an incredibly complex situation. One can be happy and also desperately depressed-the two are not mutually exclusive. You cannot see what wasn’t there, what was intentionally hidden from everyone. And for my husband, the decision he made to end his life had everything to do with the way he felt about himself and nothing to do with the great love he felt for me and everyone he interacted with. It had nothing to do with his work, his relationships, or his hobbies and everything to do with his own internal dialogue. It had nothing to do with what was outwardly shown and everything to do with what was inwardly hidden. That is what is true, but it was work-real hard, gritty, exhausting work to be able to claim these truths. One of the side effects of trauma and grief is that you can no longer believe everything your brain claims is true.
Trauma actually changes the chemical make-up of your brain. After a trauma your brain cannot operate at full capacity-it is quite literally a broken brain. Through therapy, I learned to be a gracious observer of my trauma symptoms. “Ooh, you can’t learn all of your student’s names-that’s just your broken brain.” “You don’t have the stamina to grade all of these papers, it’s ok, it’s just a side effect of your trauma.” I became dependent on calendars and lists-the notes app on my phone had never seen so much use. I would joke with my friends when I overreacted or said something ridiculous, “Sorry, broken brain over here.” And my friends would laugh with me-as they had also become gracious observers of my trauma symptoms.
But there were darker side effects too. Believe it or not it is through these darker side effects that I began to see love. I had, and still have, a very difficult time trusting that my relationships are reciprocal. I constantly worried that I was too much for people. But people proved their love by inviting me over and over-even when I declined the invitation over and over. When my therapist suggested that I check in with people and make sure we were still good to help appease my worry-a vulnerability exercise I despised from the start. When I checked in these wonderful people would say, “Yes you dear broken brained person we are fine, everything’s good, you are not too much.”
I saw love when I set up contingency plans at school. It was incredibly difficult to face the reality that I may not be able to make it through a full day of school. That I may not be able to do my job properly. That there could be things that were triggering and would make it impossible to finish my day so I would have to leave. But, surprisingly, you cannot just leave a bunch of 8th graders unattended so there needed to be a plan in place. When I forced myself to ask the secretary to be my point person I was expecting pity, even judgement for being so weak but she said, “I would be honored to do that for you.” What love.
I saw love in the people who made it clear they were in it for the long haul. Who planned adventure days and came over to watch reality TV with me. The people who let me hang at their house basically anytime I wanted and always insisted I stay for dinner.
I saw love in the simple acknowledgements of what was missing. The family member who on vacation said, “I don’t know how much or how little you want to talk about it but just know we really miss him too.” I even saw love from my students with Autism who’s comments ranged from the short and sweet, “I’m sorry about what happened last year” to the well-intentioned but not quite appropriate, ‘Mrs. Pinard I really hope you’re enjoying living alone now.”
And most clearly I saw love from the one who created all things. I participated in a praying with your imagination group during Lent this past year. The leader reads a passage of scripture then leads a guided meditation where you envision yourself somewhere in the narrative. The first week, the passage is when Jesus and some disciples go up a mountain. When they get to the top of the mountain Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus is transfigured-he becomes dazzlingly bright. To be honest, I always found that passage a little weird and I had no idea what I could possibly get out of inhabiting this particular scripture. But I was already in the room so I was pretty much locked in to giving it a try.
We were invited to picture ourselves going up the mountain and then Jesus’ group would invite you to join them. I knew I was supposed to say yes –I was supposed to want to go with them but no part of me wanted to join that group of men. I was so distrustful and afraid. But the guided meditation continued and we reached the top of the mountain. Jesus was transformed and I heard him tell me-in the same tone I use with my students when they are just really not understanding a concept but I’m not mad that they don’t get it, in fact I know they are going to get it once they just listen to me. So in his best caring teacher voice Jesus said, ‘I know. I know you have been terribly hurt. You loved and it ended in devastation but that is not me. I am not like that. My love never fails. My love is always here and never ending and I know it is hard for you to see that right now so let’s just sit. We can sit here as long as you need-there is no rush. Let me love you with a love far beyond anything you can imagine.” And so we sat. To be passive and still loved; to be at your worst and still gathered up in love-I can’t express to you what a gift that is.
A song I loved this past year has the line, “What have I done to deserve love like this?” And that is true. I marvel at the grace that allows me to receive such magnificent love, but there is more to it. Another great song has the words, “two wonders here that I confess, my worth and my unworthiness.’ So yes, part of me wonders what have I done to deserve love like this; but another part of me knows to my core that I am worthy of this great love. Being able to hold both of these truths-to live in that both/and-I think that is something sacred.