All The King’s Horses and Men: Lessons In Grief

I learned strength from a woman whose falls from grief would have made Humpty Dumpty himself marvel that she ever got back up. Born into a family of blue eyes, I got mine from the hazel-eyed woman who was put back together again and again. My grandmother sang me this nursery rhyme in the same red room where she taught me to pray. She knew what it meant to be broken and rebuilt, but she would never once tell you that she was put back together exactly the same. All the King’s horses, all the King’s men, try as they might, they were not the King. They didn’t make her and she became well aware they couldn’t save her. She wove this into me when we road tripped through the mountains or picked cotton on the sides of the South Carolina highway. I heard it in her drawn-out sighs when she laid flowers on the graves of her sons and cleaned the picture frame of her father in a casket, the one she lost at six years old. 

She used to wake up in the middle of the night and piggyback me into the kitchen for peanut butter and crackers. She never met a secret she couldn’t keep for me and sometimes I carry them now with a wish that she could be here to help bear them again. But I hear her in the syllables of “all the King’s horses, all the King’s men”. She would tell me now that she was just the King’s woman. That even she couldn’t put me back together again.

She died when I was just twelve years old, but by then she’d somehow taught me more than most I’ll ever know.

She raised me up to show up, even when the breath leaves your lungs and your heart threatens to never beat again, you still get up.

I watched her do it. She re-learned the melody of laughter and the joy of children, though she’d once lost both. When we buried her, I became determined to never let grief be her legacy to me, because it had not been her life. But it could have been, might have been, if she’d chosen to stay at the bottom of the wall the pain had thrown her from time and time again. 

What life might have been if she had given up when all the King’s horses and all the King’s men had shown up only to shake their heads and walk away with bloody and empty hands. But instead, I learned from the strength of a woman who used to wrap me up in her soft white sheet, carry me to the breakfast table, serve me something to eat, and read her Bible next to me. Seventy-one years broken and rebuilt: the loss of a father, sons, sisters, brothers and she laughed more than us all. Yet somehow, I’m still learning how to stand, how to breathe, and I’ve lost much less. But now grief is now held in these similar green eyes, having often depended on the King’s horses and the King’s men. Wishing she could tell me what and how long it takes to be put together by this King again.

I still eat peanut butter crackers in the late hours of the night and audibly count the hours if I hear the chime of the Grandfather clock. I love a road trip, repeating a good song, dancing in the shower. I slowly learn that these are the things the King uses to mend again. The life He gives when you let Him come in instead of pushing Him away when war, pain, grief, tell you He left you broken and never to be fixed, never as okay as when it all began.

Grief is something you may have to carry, but it doesn’t have to be your legacy. The King’s horses and the King’s men cannot fix you or save you. And this too, no matter what it is or how broken, can also be redeemed.

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I Will Remember This Christmas

The snow crunched beneath our boots, my nephew was born, I decorated my tree, found the perfect gold ribbon for wrapping gifts, went to parties. I’ve done everything the holiday season calls for.

I know I’ll remember this Christmas. This one. 

Sometimes we don’t get to prepare for the pain we know is coming, sometimes we do. 

But pain always comes and it makes me wonder why I don’t often stop and look at my life when it’s good and say, “Just stay here a little longer.”

My life this year doesn’t look like a lot of the people around me. The magic of Christmas has somewhat waned. I’m old enough to know the tragedy of materialism, the pain of singleness at the holidays, the drudgery of exams, the unfortunate weight of grief. I watch my parents grow older, grow softer, grow closer. I hold tight and pray to remember these moments. I rock my newest nephew and memorize his little face. I teach the oldest to say new words and hum Christmas tunes. I try to remember to take more pictures, file away more memories. 

I am blessed. I have more than some, but somehow I am grieved because I feel that I have less than others. Christmas—all is said to be calm, why doesn’t all feel bright? They tell me to let my heart be light and yet, there is heaviness. But there is also thankfulness. Every night I hear familiar, nostalgic songs and watch classic movies and I remember that God came and still comes. Christmas brings with it the tension and the pressure to hold on to what is good because it all just goes so fast and I don’t stop enough to notice sometimes.

I want to be grateful, I will be thankful, but I do not want to be fake. Because the truth is that I will remember this Christmas, for good reasons, for hard reasons. For reasons that I will look back and laugh on. For memories of going to the airport and laughing in the grocery store. For riding in the car by myself and singing loudly. For these days without so much responsibility, for the in-between, for knowing it will not always be this way. For knowing it is good, even though it is so hard. For knowing some years will be harder. We do not know which years will be good, which years will be harder—so when you can stop and see the good, that’s worth the time you can give it.

The tension of Christmas, of looking around and knowing we are so blessed, but of knowing that sometimes that blessing highlights all the ways we were blessed differently years before and might be blessed differently in years to come. That blessing sometimes hurts. 

I’ll remember this Christmas. This one. The one in the in-between. The tension of life looking nothing like it once did, or how I wanted or hoped it would. But it is now one that is blessed, beautiful, full of tension and even grief. Sometimes it’s calm and bright, sometimes it’s crying, questions, waiting, tension, and misunderstanding. But there’s a lot of good and I’m learning to slow down to try and see it more. I am trying to see just how good it is right here and right now. This year we will gather around and raise toasts to years gone by, to those empty chairs, to ones that might be emptier sooner than we hope. I’ll remember this Christmas. This one. The one with goodness, grief, babies being born on snowy mornings. We are blessed, will be blessed, but maybe next year we will be blessed differently. But I’ll remember this Christmas. This one. And how I’m praying we can stop to sit long enough to see the goodness and remember His coming and the coming yet to be.

To: My Future Daughter // A Letter on Grief.

It is entirely possible to have both one of the worst and best days of your life on exactly the same day. This is because grief is one of those things that frees you from all of your pride and ego while simultaneously ripping your heart out. In the midst of my grief, I’ve done some pretty liberating things. I’ve taken many spur-of-the-moment trips, written some insane letters, screamed at the top of my lungs, sang loudly without caring who was listening, moved my entire life. None of these are the things that I regret. Regret has only been something I’ve known when I let the grief silence me. 

You will do some wild and unpredictable things in your pain. Many of them truthful, some of them sincere, a few of them haphazard. But at the end of the day, heartbreak comes to us all in countless ways. I hope that in all the ways it has come and continues to come, you dance it out, shake it out, sing it out, write it out, but do not hold it in. 

However, be prepared to say you’re sorry. Never intentionally do something to hurt someone, but know that it will probably happen in the midst of your anguish and sorrow. Grief brings with it a breaking of our facades, but it also often cracks our filters. Know that you won’t get it all right and just because some things feel better in the moment, that doesn’t mean you get off scot-free in the end. Hurt people hurt people, it’s a cliche because it’s true. 

It is entirely possible to have both the worst and best day at the same time. Because suddenly, though your heart is screaming in pain, you will finally able to release it from all the other things it’s been carrying that seem so trivial. I call it an “in the grand scheme” view of things.  Grief brings with it a certain sort of “big picture” kind of reality with it that makes you drop all the little cares and worries of the previous days. It makes you start evaluating all the dumb things you threw around in your brain yesterday. It makes you start minimizing and prioritizing. Suddenly, you start saying all the things you couldn’t before, wouldn’t before, didn’t know were choking you and breaking you before. Because “in the grand scheme” of things, what does it matter now? Grief shows you what matters now.

But it is entirely possible that it is still the worst day. While you are free of all the little insecurities that you sat in yesterday, you’re in the big and grand sorrows of today. The big things matter and grief will knock on your door to remind you of that. So you’ll take trips, write letters, sing loudly, scream loudly, stay awake a little longer, because “in the grand scheme of things”– and you’ll know that these are the only things you can control. But know, even those are things you cannot control. 

Don’t try to control the pain. I hope we both learn this young. We cannot control the pain. We can evaluate all the big things, little things, figure out what matters and try to our best in the in-between, but the truth is, this isn’t up to you and me. Today, we’re both just young, wild girls who are trying to figure out how to get free. It’s okay to not have the answers, to not understand the grand scheme of all these things. 

You will do some wild things in your pain. You will say wrong things when you are down on your knees. You will ask God unimaginable questions and you stand up only to stomp your feet. You will get in the car and drive nowhere, but end up exactly where you were meant to be. You will press send on things that you mean, and realize that losing all of your pride is probably the only way you’re ever going to get free. 

You will someday have the worst and best day simultaneously when you realize that God turns our pain into something that He can use. You will hate the feeling of your heart breaking as you also sigh at the relief you feel when you finally let love break through. You cannot carry grief without love, or love without grief. On this earth, they are linked, sometimes they are one and the same. Someday you will know what it means to have the worst and the best day simultaneously, and when you do you’ll know what it means to be a little more broken and somehow a little more free.

Someday you will have the worst and best day simultaneously when you realize the pain and joy of loving, losing, and getting back to the grand scheme of clinging, for as long as you can, to those who have taught you the best parts about all these things.

Thanksgiving + Home + Monsters

There was a time when coming home was heavy with grief. My days were spent with white knuckles, mapping out my escape route.

Every time someone asked if I was ever coming home, the knot in my stomach tightened. I faked a smile with my shrugged shoulders, but I knew the answer.

It seemed impossible to ever be here and not be miserable, not wish that here was anywhere else.

But plans change and sometimes we become the person who returns to the place we spent years running from only to realize that those monsters aren’t so scary once we turn on the light.

Thankful.

That when I look back on the last few years I did not get the things I wanted. That while I sat yelling for God to take away the monsters, He taught me instead to turn on the light. For a long time, it seemed cruel and merciless, but it turned out to be the thing that brought me to the doorstep of a place I never thought I could return to because I was no longer afraid of the dark.

Fear does not win, darkness does not get to stay, and thanksgiving becomes our song when we find ourselves trusting that there is a reason for what seems like delay, unexpected answers, silence. 

There was and has always been a reason, many reasons. That I might learn the touch of God who would lift my arms in darkness and teach me how to find the light. That I would not live believing in a distant God who simply sweeps out monsters without showing me that they are not meant to hold me down, keep me paralyzed, keep me from putting my feet in places I love and with people I’m meant to know. To take away my fear, to give me the courage to walk into rooms of darkness and turn on the light for somebody else.

Thankful.

That home does not have to be our enemy, the place of our deepest pain and disappointment. The thing that we dread, the darkness we can’t reach out in, the room in which we feel paralyzed. That home oftentimes feels like the place in which we see our prayers answered least, God’s silence most, but is the place when we learn to turn on the lights, we will see those monsters are just shadows.

When Memories are Our God

I spent a good chunk of my early twenties regretting two days: an afternoon at a sushi restaurant and a night I spent alone watching Batman at the movie theater inside of the mall.

I didn’t realize it, but all those years I spent driving around my hometown arguing with God, I was trying to figure out a way to convince Him to turn back time. I knew if He would just let me do them over I could fix everything.

It wasn’t until last week with my forearms resting on a picnic table, young eyes and beautiful faces staring at me that I finally admitted the truth.

That day in the sushi restaurant and that night in the movie theater could no longer be my God. They could not be the thing I lived for–the thing that I leaned on to save my life any longer.

Later in the week I cried on the baking aisle at Kroger because I realized that until we decide to let go of those moments that we’re convinced changed everything, we will spend our entire lives making idols out of a day on a calendar that cannot offer you anything for your future.

Constantly looking at the past, at a moment, a hurt, a grief, a thing we cannot forgive–in ourselves or someone else– eventually makes it our God. When we obsessively expect or want something from it, analyze it in hopes for some kind of redemption or some kind of answer, we begin to worship it. When we obsessively believe that it will fix everything, if we get an answer or get “closure” from that moment, we make it our God.

Those two moments are ones I couldn’t forgive myself for. They are also moments I could not forgive someone else for. Within them were layered years of trust issues and excuses for why freedom was out of my reach. But anything that keeps you from freedom is your God. Anything that you are so locked into, given over to so fully, anything that has permission to take control of you without your ability to have yourself back–that thing is your God. 

For me they were my trust issues, that came with seeing that birthday bag hidden at the end of that table, and the words said to me when I was wearing that blue jacket. They became my God because I was so trapped in how they broke my heart. I gave them my mind, my heart, my trust. If they had gone differently, oh how my life would have turned out to be something else to behold.

When memories are our God, we give them our hearts, our best years of forgiveness and trust. Back when I was young and dumb, back before I knew that people were so cruel. 

We think our wisdom and better understanding of the world is what took our ability to just hand out trust and forgiveness, but really it was our idolatry of our memories. If we were honest, we’ve spent our years fixated, worshipping days of our lives, thinking that if we could get them back they would heal the deepest parts of our souls.

We have given credit where it is not due and thought if this day had not happened, I would be better than I am right now.

We exalt hours, minutes, or seconds; we worship the hands of the clock. We think it was moments that broke us, time that heals us, and will be at-first-sight seconds that save us.

But time is just a measure, a tool, a thing. If we could finally invent the time machine we’ve all been praying for, I’m convinced that none of us would be happier, healthier, better off. Because it would not change our hearts; we could change a moment, but we could not change what got us there.

Because everything that built up to that moment would not have changed. It’s cause and effect, my dear. That moment was built on a thousand other little things that made it what it was. The second you realize that is the second you might finally learn to forgive. Because the human heart is far more complicated that just one passing moment. We must stop holding it inside a prison of one split second, one long day, one complicated year.

Time and your memories are too small to be your God; they are too far gone to fix you, too fleeting to save you.

But if they hold your trust, have stolen your forgiveness, trapped your joy–you’ve made them your God.

If you’ve used words that sound something like: “But you don’t know what happened to me”, that moment, that sixty seconds, that day, that stretch of the earth spinning of the earth around the sun– that became your God.

It became the thing that you gave permission to break and name you. And if you’re honest it’s the thing you believe, if you could get it back, would be able to save you.

There’s a baking aisle in Kroger and it’s where I decided that the calendar wasn’t the thing I wanted to wake up next to every morning. I didn’t want to grow old with and give everything to a day or a year I had circled in red.

It’s where God became God again and time and its memories became a thing I finally stopped trying to change.

 

 

God, My Questions, and a Stranger

I stared at the foam of my cappuccino as her words broke through the thick fog I’d been walking through since we first landed in Israel. This woman, who just an hour before had been a total stranger to me, was telling me her story and showing me some pretty raw places of her past.

She sighed, but sat with such peace. “I was struggling so much. I was believing so many lies… but God still used me, you know?”

I leaned in and watched the corners of her mouth turn upwards in a smile,

“God is so big, He doesn’t mind.”

As soon as they hit my heart, I knew those were the words I’ve been waiting years to hear.

It took me back to a few years ago, to a day that I’ve heavily carried. My face was soaking wet, my eyes were bloodshot; I was angry, I was afraid, I was barely breathing. I was five bodies deep in grief, and the sixth was being prepared to be put in the ground. I remember standing in that church building with clenched fists and shouting to the top of my lungs, “If God is so big, He can handle my questions!”

As soon as those words left my mouth, I broke. I fell straight to my knees and sobbed on the floor. Countless people passed by me, but I didn’t care how it looked. This was me and God on the battlefield and this was me slinging every last shot I had. I was firing all of my ammunition, this was my win or lose moment. This was the moment when God would either walk off and leave me or lean in and grab me tighter. I was giving Him every reason to finally turn around and walk away, I was pushing Him with every bit of force my tiny fists could muster. I thought for sure that He’d leave, if He hadn’t already.

So flash forward, years later, sitting in Israel across from this stranger. She whispered those words with such peace, such certainty: God is so big, He doesn’t mind.

It felt like I was finally hearing Him respond to that moment, “You were right, I could handle it. I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind that you were weak. It didn’t change anything.”

He’s that big. He isn’t the least bit altered by my anger, weakness, frustration or questions. I’m not a big enough bully that I could make Him walk away.

I think that was Israel for me. All throughout the Bible we see that Israel rejected God, gave Him a million reasons to leave. They hated Him, they pushed Him away, but He stayed and He still stays. He’s there and He has such mercy, even in the war and chaos, even in the grief and in the misunderstanding.

Everywhere I stepped it was a reminder of Him saying, I don’t leave my people. 

I think most people were expecting some kind of post about adventure, climbing mountains, walking on water, exploring ruins of an ancient city. Maybe you thought I’d have some kind of life lesson about enjoying every moment, about living an exciting and free life.

What this post is about is God pressing the play button, after feeling like I’ve been on pause for a really long time. It was His reply to the banging of my fists all those years ago. It was the moment of me finally looking up from weeping on the floor and seeing that even though so many people left, He stayed.

I walked down the Via Dolorosa last week (the road Jesus walked to the cross). I thought a lot about the men who were beating Him, swinging over and over again while watching His body crack and tear. Later I realized that some of the swings they made were for the day I fell screaming in that church floor.

He handled my questions, then. It was finished on that day. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t yet rammed my fists into the floor or shouted furiously, He handled my questions long before that day. God is big enough, that He didn’t mind. He didn’t mind my questions, because He died to give me the answer.

He doesn’t leave, that’s really what Israel gave to me. The reminder that we all have years spent in the desert, years of giving Him a million reasons to go. No matter how long we spend wandering around and walking in circles, He’s big enough, He can handle it, He stays.

It Won’t Be the Stage

I joined a grief group soon after I moved to Georgia.

It was completely unlike me, but I was so broken and desperate for healing that I was willing to do something that I would have previously labeled as mortifying.

I showed up to a few of the meetings. I was the youngest person, the quietest person and the least certain that I wanted to be there.

It took maybe three sessions before I walked out a changed person. It had nothing to do with the discussions, people, videos, etc. (although they were all good things). I think I walked out a completely different person because it took choosing to become a different person to ever walk into that meeting in the first place.

Sometimes, we have to choose to do the things we never thought we would.

We have to be willing to walk out the path that we once labeled ourselves too good to tread on.

I was a pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps-and-deal-with-it kind of girl for most of my adolescence. I didn’t need grief groups, counselors, or cry sessions. I was too strong for that, too proud for that.

But it wasn’t until I chose to do the things that sent my knees to the dirt that I learned how wrong I’ve seen the world.

I learned the value of doing things that are hard, that require me to sit among other broken people and say maybe we’re all really the same. Maybe I’m not better than anyone else. Maybe I am a poster child for weakness and that’s not as bad as it always seemed. Maybe weakness is where I always needed to start.

The world is going to tell you who you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to wear.

They’re going to tell you that you’ve got to be the loudest, the funniest, the crowd-drawer. They’re going to expect you to wear dresses, suits, ties and pointed shoes. They’ll tell you that’s what makes a leader, that’s what makes a world changer. They’ll tell you that the behind the scenes people are important too. “There are no small parts,” that’s what they’ll say.

And what they’ll never know is that some of the greatest leaders, greatest world changers, some of the bravest people are those who pull the curtains and cheer for the people on the stage.

What they’ll never tell you is that Mother Teresa wasn’t a show stopper and she didn’t go looking for microphones and monuments built for her name. But she was a force; she wrestled hatred with her bare hands, and she won. At age 87, she lifted her arms in victory and heard the words, “Well done.”

They told us, “Leaders don’t go to grief groups, and world changers aren’t quiet. Difference makers don’t mop floors and brave people don’t wait for anything. Leaders push, they’re the people who build something and make things happen (even if what they built doesn’t last).”

But what I’ve learned of lasting change is from the people who choose the hard things, whose names aren’t the first among the credits. They learn how to listen first, and speak carefully. They weigh their words, bend their knees and know what it means to wait, to truly wait for something to grow.

They are not afraid of the platforms or the microphones, but they have no appetite for them, no fascination with them. They do not shrink at truth, but do not speak for the sake of being heard.

I took a journey of becoming the person I want to be when I stepped through the door that led me to that grief group. When I chose to become the person that I saw as weak, I started to do the things that actually make me stronger.

What I really needed was to step into a little back room with a few people, where I didn’t need to be liked, or to get a round of applause. I needed to sit among people who knew my kind of loss and admit that it was hard, but I was going to try. I had to decide that I was willing to do the work it would take (even if it took forever).

It was the little step that led to a change that has lasted.

It won’t be the stage, the fame, the applause, that will make you the kind of person you really want to be, or help you change the world in a deep-rooted way.

Mother Teresa’s don’t come by way of popularity.

It’s when you let go of the need to have anyone know your name, the need to be seen as strong or brave; that’s when you’ll change the world in a lasting way.