Then my world exploded. Kristen shared a terrible secret that she’d been baring the weight of alone for far too long. When she was a child, a family member had sexually and emotionally abused her repeatedly over a period of years.
As a therapist who had witnessed the unfathomable devastation of child abuse far too many times, I’d been determined to keep my child safe. I’d carefully screened the few people who had access to her when she wasn’t in my presence, we had completed the coloring book that described red light/green light touches when she was four, and had read and discussed a children’s book developed to provide children with tools that would serve to protect them from sexual abuse. We rehearsed what she should do if someone touched her inappropriately or frightened her, and had talked about the importance of never keeping secrets that made her feel “yucky.”
And now I knew throughout my body and soul what I had only known intellectually – no child is ever truly safe. I had failed to protect my innocent little girl. In fact, we had welcomed the devil into our family. And now I was careening into a terrible darkness, on fire with rage, repeatedly tortured by images of my precious child’s abuse, and brutalized by the utterly overwhelming twins of grief and guilt.
In November of 2012 my mother died at 4:20 on a Sunday morning. The two days preceding her death had been excruciating, and I am thankful that I was stroking her face and singing her a love song when she finally sighed deeply and slipped away.
My heart was far too full of grief, love and regret to make room for my brain to fully absorb her death at first. In fact, I’m still in the process of coming to terms with the painful truth that she is never, ever coming back to me. And although I was no stranger to the heaviness of loss and grief, for days following her death I was struck almost mute by the weight of a heart that was so swollen and bruised, I was absolutely exhausted from carrying it around.
In Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places, James Hollis points out that the word for grief originates from the latin term, “gravis,” which translates as “to bear,” and observes, “To experience grief is not only to bear the heaviness of the condition but, again, to testify to its depth as well.” The gravity of my grief lead me down into the depths of both my longing and my love. One moment I was strong. I was the comforter and the matriarch. And the next, I was weeping without warning — a motherless child, a guilt stricken mother, a woman underwater clamoring for breath.
Three months after losing my mother, I unexpectedly lost my oldest childhood friend, my anam cara – my soul sister…
I still remember the first moment that I saw her. She was a tiny little waif, leaning lightly against my grandmother and laughing at something that had just been said. I was a lover of fairy tales and with her blonde hair, dancing blue eyes, and sweet pixie face, my eight year old self quickly concluded that here standing right before me, in my very own kitchen, was Goldilocks!
At eight she enchanted me, by ten she was fully integrated into my family, and by twelve she was my confidant and best friend. I’m not sure when she became my sister and a vital part of me, but she did.
Her maiden name was Joy, which was both fitting and ironic. As a young child she and her younger brothers had been removed from her parents and placed into foster care. As a very young woman, one of her brothers was diagnosed with schizophrenia, followed by the death of his twin. Her only consolation was that she had been with him when he heaved his last breath. Next, not long after she and her estranged father began building a relationship, he perished from lung cancer. And then, eight years ago, her husband of nineteen years (and my first love) went to work one morning and never came home. He died instantly, leaving her to finish raising three of their four children alone while battling the fierceness of anxiety and depression.
This past February as the abominable storm Nemo surged towards them, those same beautiful children bravely and graciously greeted friends and family who had come to honor their mother’s life. She had been admitted into the hospital with pneumonia and died there.
The amount of pain and suffering she and her children have faced at such tender ages was and is completely incomprehensible to me, and the urge to bellow up at the heavens, “why!! why!!!! Why!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” sat wound tightly in my chest for weeks, threatening to explode and scatter shards of my shattered self everywhere. In fact, the urge rises up even now from the center of my chest as I write these words and something terrible and dense comes to occupy the space around my lungs and heart.
For the last three springs of her life I had told her that I thought I could manage a visit during the summer, and yet had found myself apologizing each autumn when my plans to visit fell through. I believed that we’d have many more summers, plenty of time.
She called me right after my mother died and left a message explaining that she understood that I might not have the energy to call back right away, (I didn’t) and that she would simply be waiting and available to me when I was ready to talk. She emailed me before Christmas and warned me that the holidays would be brutal, but that I’d get through them. I emailed her back and thanked her, promising that I’d call her soon. That was our final contact. I ache still with the knowledge that there will be no more phone calls, no more heart to heart talks, no more promises, and no more summer adventures to plan. I have lost my soul sister, and along with her I have lost a piece of myself. I love and long for her fiercely now.
I’m unspeakably grateful for my years as a therapist, and for the fifteen years that I spent researching trauma and transformation in earnest before my own life spiraled so out of control. I can’t imagine how I would have possibly moved through the pain, fear, and chaos that has occupied so much of my life during these past few years without having witnessed time and time again the tremendous strength and resilience of my clients, and the stubborn albeit shaky faith that I would be able to emerge deepened and refined by the excruciating yoga of despair that I’d gotten lost in.
And now at 12:01 on Wednesday, January the first, 2014, I am thinking about two questions Dawna Markova posed in her book, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life and that I have asked myself repeatedly during these past three years, “what if the moments of the greatest wounding in your life were also places where the divine crossed your path, and the unquenchable dream of your life was born?…what do you love that is bigger than this wound?” While my answer to the second question has remained steadfast, it is only recently that I have been able to fully recognize where the divine had indeed penetrated my darkness. I know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are surrounded by new life even in the midst of death, and that poet, Mark Neppo spoke the truth when he pointed out that “each cocoon must break so the next butterfly can be. And it is our curse and blessing to die and be born so many times. So many sheddings. So many wings.”
When sunlight greets this first day of the New Year, I will welcome it with a heart that now holds as much gratitude as it does pain, and with a life that contains a love that is far greater than its wounds.
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