Friday, November 16, 2012

On Growing Up, Grief and Grace: Part 2, Grief

I wrote recently that I have been processing a bit about our past missionary experiences compared with this one and why I seem so much more able to cope this time. I wrote a little about how how I've grown up a bit since our first mission last week.
Another reason I think I'm coping a bit differently this time is that the experience I've had in losing my sixth son Bryce 3 three years ago and suffering two subsequent miscarriages since then has changed me. I am a different woman in many ways that I was before. But I think the thing I have seen most in our time here in this mission post is that grief has taught me how to be lonely.
This mission life is an inherently lonely life. No we are not the missionaries of old who waved goodbye to their families, stepped onto ships and were fully prepared to never to see their homeland or families again. I mean, just since our last spell in missions six years ago, the availability of internet, Facebook and Skype have drastically changed communication. I can daily peek in to life back home and check on a family member in the hospital or a friend about to give birth to twins. I can readily communicate with supporters and people helping to meet the needs of our ministry. It is a huge difference in the level of isolation we feel.
However, regardless of how much easier communication is now, the missionary life is an essentially lonely one and battling feeling lonely and forgotten is part of the daily struggle of this life. I think it is in God's design for this life, really, because that daily hunger for something that you can't quite put your finger on (and not the hunger for a bacon cheeseburger and margaritas -- that's a different issue altogether) can, if you let it, keep clinging to the grace and the love that is meant to fill you with only good things, that is the only way to keep walking this missionary road without completely falling apart. Ideally, the loneliness should draw you to prayer, and into the heart of your marriage if you are a married missionary, which I am. Ahem, let me stress, ideally.
You leave behind a lot when you go to the mission field, including real face-to-face contact with your family and having the encouragement of a friend a text message away. You also leave behind the happy chatter with your sister on your drive home from the grocery store and the chance to recharge from a stressful day by hanging with mommies on the sidelines of the football field or the lobby of the play rehearsal for a couple hours. Days are long and stressful and often lonely. You chat with your neighbors and it helps, but it's not the same. You feel the terrible sting of disappointment in your friends because, well, their lives go on and are not all about keeping you happy on the mission field. And then you get over it. Ideally. Ahem, let me again stress, ideally.
Because, you see, last time, six years ago, I never really got over it. I am an off-the-charts extrovert who has long dealt with stress and trial by seeking a little socialization and the company of others. A laugh with a friend, or to be quite honest, a perfect stranger, is like pushing the reset button in my brain. And it can be a good coping strategy. However, there have been times in my life when I have clung to that need like it was oxygen. Like I would die without constant contact with others. In times of difficulties, sorrow, or trial, I am tempted to use the company of others to placate the wounds.
I didn't quite have the self-awareness I do now six years ago. I couldn't put my finger on that hunger and call it loneliness and tell myself, "This is you looking to cope with stress in the way you are accustomed to, and that's not going to work here. Slow down, settle in, you'll figure out how to cope." Instead, I became increasingly panicked about that nagging feeling that something wasn't right. I frantically searched out the company of others. I built resentment toward my husband that he couldn't fill this growing thing inside me. And I was completely ignorant of what it really was and that it was and would always be an inherent struggle for me.
In the growing up I've done in the past six years, I've come to see this tendency in myself. I can't say I've learned to rein it in. It's still a daily struggle for me. But when I was plunged into grief after the loss of Bryce three years ago, I was plunged into a lifelong sense of loss and loneliness that I have had no choice but to learn to live with. And that has made the transition back into missionary life a bit easier to live with this time around.
Don't get me wrong, the loving support of family and friends was essential to my survival after Bryce's death and my subsequent losses. But the truth is, grief drives a wedge into your heart that leaves you always feeling a little disconnected from the rest of the world, always a little bit apart from everyone else. Your internal dialogue is constant and intense and it's not something you can articulate regularly to others without risking getting a reputation for being the new crazy lady in town. I mean, when the phone rings and a friend's voice rings out sincerely, "How are you? What are you doing today?" you can't well answer, "Well, I just convinced myself to take the last ten breaths! In a row! And then shook each of my kids in their beds to make sure they were breathing. Now I'm cooking breakfast and counting to 100 while I stir to try to shake my brain free of horrific images. What about you?"
So you give away little pieces of your heart to make sure you don't implode. But you come to live with the reality that this is an essentially singular process. And that the hunger and loneliness you feel is largely for the person you lost and the future you won't have and, well, that's not going away no matter how many good conversations with friends you have or how you fill up your days with constant interaction.
However, if you can look at yourself honestly and recognize the hunger for what it is, it can drive you to honest communication with your Heavenly Father, a real clinging to grace, and to baring the most vulnerable parts of your heart to your spouse, which is how it should be.
I think in my initial grief, I did pretty well with this. As time went on and I experienced the two miscarriages and the pain of reality became a little much to bear, I slid back into old habits, filling life with hustle and bustle and laughter and joy, but leaving my real interior living and processing, and the chance to heal, on the back burner. And running from the very person for whom I should have reserved that vulnerability, my husband.
But an incredible grace accompanied me into this mission along with that new grown self-awareness. I knew I was going to be lonely. I knew it was going to be terrible intense. I knew I would battle a rising hunger, a craving nothing could seem to meet, and I knew what it was. Loneliness was no longer foreign to me. I surrendered to it this time around and admitted that, if I was honest, I had paid the price of clinging to others to feed that hunger and it just wasn't worth it. I'd rather be lonely than disappointed, hurt, and betrayed, which are the inevitable results of giving too much of yourself away in the search for the company of others.
That's not to say I haven't felt its pangs here. I have. Desperately at time. I've cried for loneliness and I've laid myself at the feet of Jesus over and over again. But what is different is that I have not rushed headlong into the frantic illusion that it can and must be fixed. When I throw a lifeline out to a friend via e-mail and get no response, I cling to the grace to sit in that pain. When I feel the temptation rise to run after the response of others, I strap on my shoes and pound it out into the pavement with a long walk or run. When I need to spill it all out somewhere, I grab my journal and head to a rock on the river's edge.
We've been here almost a year now. I've spent a lot of that time living the dull ache of loneliness day in and day out. And it's a familiar ache. And it doesn't scare me the way it once did. Because, in all truthfulness, it's been long coming that I let go of the illusion of belonging, of fitting in. I used to look for that in places like homeschooling communities, circles of like-minded friends, mommy buddies. But, really, where does the women who has turned birth into death three times in the last three years fit in those circles anyway. Pictures of pretty cupcakes and cure crafts don't really bridge that gap, if you know I mean. I've been long recognizing that the diet of spiritual cupcakes I used to feed myself on in loneliness, the company and approval of others, wasn't enough to give me the strength to recover from the enormity of these losses, from the desperate hunger for love and intimacy it has evoked in my soul. In His grace, the Lord used missions to force me to fully surrendered to this gift of wisdom He had long been growing in my heart.
Yes, I've spent the better part of the last year feeling the dull ache of loneliness. And I've realized it is not a panicked, haunting feeling for me any more. It is a familiar, albeit occasionally unwelcome, friend. And in surrendering to it, I've learned a little more how to cope. I've felt the gaping wounds of grief close a little tighter in my heart as I lean in to the embrace of the Savior and the ready arms of the man I love. And I've learned to settle into it when the hunger just won't go away and let it be what it is. Not something to fix but something to carry, in cupped and careful hands, because it is the work He is doing in my soul and it is sacred.
And I am daily singing myself a new song. This one. And reminding myself daily to settle down. It'll all be clear. To pay no mind to the demon of loneliness that can fill me with fear. Because He's going to make this place my home.


  1. Hi Colleen, thank you for sharing about this so openly. It's a powerful story and good inspiration for us whatever our mission field happens to be. I'll be thinking on it for a long time. Blessings to you and your family!!

  2. Thank you for coming by to read, Lynn. I'm glad the post could inspire you and pray it continues to bless.