Life Stands Still, All too Real, Life Stands Still. Life goes on, Feels so Wrong, Life goes on.
Oh to be seventeen again. That was the age when I first lost someone I loved. My grandpa was a warm, gregarious man. He joked and sung and danced. When my mom woke me up to tell me the news, I swept right passed her and found myself gripping onto the rod-iron bars on my back gate. I wanted to go through it, to run away from the pain penetrating my seventeen year-old heart, but I knew I had to stay. To feel it, to face the reality of death. Oh to be 17 again and to feel loss as an outsider, a newcomer. But instead, in 2017 when loss came crashing in again, it felt all too familiar. Familiar but no less painful, actually more so. I guess my heart had learned to hurt deeply so the pain seeped into those soft spaces.
2017 had been pretty tumultuous up to that point. We started the year pregnant and full of hope to stay in the city we loved. Weeks into 2017 we would have a miscarriage and months in, we’d get the news that we were moving. We needed new life in the Spring of Seventeen. But the ups and downs continued. We bought a house we adore in our new town of Tucson and we had the chance to travel to Hawaii and Spain.
And yet the pictures of the paradise of Hawaii stir a desperate desire to grasp onto the last memories I’ll ever make with my brother. Never could I have imagined that sitting across from him at breakfast before my flight home would be the last time I’d see him smile. I still can barely believe it now. Anyone who has walked through profound grief knows that there are no words to describe the pain, only tears. Lots and lots of tears.
There is so much that I could say about the messy and painful process of grief that has colored much of my last year and previous seasons of grief. If you are going through it and need support, please reach out to me or someone you love and trust. There is a powerfully dark lie that we have to mourn alone, but there is incredible healing found as those we love help us carry the weight of our pain and the burden of our tears.
In this space my goal isn’t to dive into the depths of loss in general but to specifically consider the ways that our pain can shape the way we engage life, especially our work. In a recent post, we talked about love as the orientation for our life, and to love is to experience pain. This is inevitable when we make ourselves vulnerable through relationship.
Brene' Brown, a vulnerability researcher and author, says that the two emotional experiences that people fear the most are shame and grief. In her book Daring Greatly she explains how the pain of these experiences is biologically just as real as physical pain. We often want to run and hide from these emotions, layer them with fake smiles or our personal form of self-medication. But when we disengage those parts of our hearts in our life and work, we miss an opportunity to be whole people serving whole people.
My broken heart
Just a few short months after my brother passed it was opening night at my new restaurant. People were excited to be in this new beautiful space in the center of their city. There was a contagious buzz in the air. This is when my heart broke. It was a necklace that I got the day that I said goodbye to Blake. He would be cremated with the center of the heart and the outline would hang around my neck. That night I tucked it into my shirt but it got caught on something behind the bar and broke in half. I realized in that moment that this wouldn’t be the last time that I would want to break down in the middle of my shift. Here I was in the midst of this exciting night and there were smiling, expectant faces surrounding me. I had to decide to feel the pain and find a way to stay present. It wasn't easy then or a number of times after that.
Something that surprised me about how this particular pain shaped my work was how little changed on the surface but how much transformed in me. I lost my brother to suicide which left us with so many unanswered questions and deeply conflicting emotions. It led me to consider a complete career change to engage with people affected by the heartache of depression and suicide. But as I prayed and considered, I was reminded of how connected the human experience is. How every guest that would sit at my bar would be joined by their wounds and their need to be known and loved. I remembered how badly we need a space to be together, for relationship and good food and drink to be enjoyed. I thought about what a gift it is to create a new, beautiful drink customized for the person sitting across from me. About how restaurant staff become like family and need a genuine listening ear and caring presence. I reflected on how much Blake’s smile brought joy to those around him and how mine could do the same. I was convinced of how much we all needed greater compassion and understanding, to give and receive grace freely.
And then there were words
And then there was my writing. I struggled to write in the way I had been. My ideas and feelings were so mixed up, I didn’t know what was worth saying or what was even true. But in the early months the ink in my journal bled with honesty, forming some of the rawest words I’d ever write. Blake was always one of my biggest inspirations for writing. His experience of the world made me sensitive to things I would have never had eyes to see otherwise. His love for lyrics and poetry in music made me think of the possibility in words. And he faithfully read everything I shared. That’s what gave me the strength to write and share a poem at his memorial. That will always be the most precious thing I’ve put on paper.
I think the biggest way my pain has shaped my writing is by drawing me out from behind ideas and contemplations into the real stuff of life. Into the intersection of joy and pain, loss and new life, healing and heartache. This is where most of us live at any given time. If we find ourselves travelling on only one of these roads, we probably have closed our eyes to the other. Pain can blind us from the beauty of the rising sun and running from hurt can disconnect us from the world and our own hearts.
As I think back on the past year, there have been many moments in my life and work that I wanted to run from a particular opportunity because it hit way to close to home. It was in those times that I allowed myself to feel the pain and press in, knowing that healing would come by walking through it rather than shrinking back. It takes courage to enter into different aspects of your work with a broken heart. It would be much easier to fuse together those pieces prematurely and forge on ahead. But there is something incredibly powerful about entering in from a place of brokenness and allowing that to inform the way we work and love. Let's continue to take those small, unsteady steps towards the pain, towards a soft heart that can love in spectacular ways.