Picture your young heart as a tender, open field, sown with mysterious seeds. The seeds take root and begin to grow. Many of these plants, you’ll come to know, are cheerful annuals; they’re with you for a season, and when their time is past, you mourn – but not too much. Other annuals will spring up to delight you. But the perennials, those with deeper roots, feel like keepers. By definition, by devotion, by depth of attachment, these are the ones that entwine you. They shape you, mirror you, affirm you, and anchor you; without them, you cannot imagine living.
And then, the unthinkable happens. Your dearest tree, your favorite perennial, is violently uprooted. It’s taken in the night, while you are sleeping, or during the day, under the pretense of a pruning or a transplant. Either way, the uprooting sends shock waves and leaves a large, jagged crater behind. Some roots are deeply embedded; they linger like land mines, secret and dangerous.
Imagine the uprooting never stops. Imagine your heart as a garden, an orchard, a forest – plundered until nothing but craters, aching with emptiness, fill your sight. Imagine your spirit as you gaze at the bottomless holes.
Now imagine you are looking at the land surrounding the ravaged field. It, too, has seen better days. No longer lush and well-watered, it looks washed out, worn out, wrinkled. It no longer sparkles with life and vitality. In fact, it’s starting to look like….well, like it’s past its prime. As if no amount of conservation could ever restore its former lustre and liveliness.
This is how cumulative, unresolved grief plus hitting menopause looks and feels. At least, that’s how it looked and felt for me, struggling to make sense of what was remained. My list of losses was staggering. Here are some of the standouts:
When I was fourteen, I ran away from home and ended up living in a ‘girl’s home’ until, at sixteen, I started living on my own. (Losses: belonging to a family, connection with both parents, academic and emotional support, educational opportunities, contact with my brothers. Trust and self-esteem.)
At 22, I lost my deeply beloved fiancé to cancer. He was my best friend, my rescuer, my soul mate. His life was cut short at 29. (Losses: incalculable.) Overwhelmed, I ran from my grief instead of facing it; the loss never went away.
When I was 27, I had an ectopic pregnancy and later learned that I would never have biological children. Those losses were assuaged by adopting our children (stories of loss and abandonment in themselves) – but not mourned or faced completely.
At age 32, I left India to get a new visa – and couldn’t go back, even to say goodbye, until four years ago. (Losses: dreams, plans, relationships. We were preparing to plant a church in Calcutta.) Our frequent ministry moves left tidal waves of loss, especially the moves that caught me by surprise: leaving Nigeria, leaving Africa for good, leaving Virginia Beach (18 months after we’d been encouraged to put down roots and buy a house), leaving Norfolk after 9-11, and finally, leaving London – the subject that launched this blog. I gave my heart in every place we lived, until my heart could give and break no more. The ultimate disillusionment and subsequent displacement left my field broken, gutted, and dry. The unthinkable had happened, over and over.
And what of menopause, the ‘change of life’, the mark of entering one’s final phase of womanhood? (Hang in there, guys; I know this is an awkward topic. But you might learn something useful.) Well, that’s a whole other canyon of loss. As well as the inevitable physical changes (none to be found on anyone’s list of ‘must-haves’), there are often unwelcome emotional changes, caused by hormonal imbalances, as the body enters perimenopause, lasting years before balance (and sanity) is restored. I won’t burden you with details; a quick Google search can give you list upon list of the grievances, complaints, and symptoms visited upon the menopausal. If you’ve been there, or spent any time around women who are living through this stage, you know what I’m talking about. Vicious circles of insomnia, irritability, mood swings, depression and low energy make life a real party for the afflicted and their loved ones.
So this is where I found myself. Coping with ‘change of life’, in combination with cumulative grief, dislocation, post-traumatic stress disorder and the additional losses of career, faith, identity and community: it’s a wonder I got out of bed at all.
I share all this not to garner sympathy, but to raise awareness. Many of us go through life rarely, if ever, processing and grieving our losses. Grief awareness and grief recovery are not part of our vocabulary or culture. Those of us who’ve lost friends, faith, direction and hope — just some of the fallout from the collapse of the church as we knew it — flail in deep and dangerous waters. And we who face such catastrophic loss later in life, as I did, must navigate these waters with heavier limbs and hearts. This was not what we expected, not how we imagined our ‘golden years’ would unfold. Without help, we might not make it through.
There’s something else I want you to think about. Maybe you identify with my heart analogy, or maybe you don’t. Either way, ask yourself: is it possible that people in your life, people who seem chronically sad, disengaged, low-spirited or withdrawn, have huge, invisible craters inside? That they’ve been gutted by a succession of heavy losses and unresolved grief? Is it possible they’ve been through a depth of loss you’ve never experienced, that they’ve lived through tales you’d never have guessed? Or that they’re struggling with ageing, hormonal imbalances, and coming to terms with landing in the ‘golden years’ with broken dreams – “sweet dreams and flying machines — in pieces on the ground”?* If so, does this change how you perceive them? And what you could say, and pray, to help?
Of course, the Helper is always nearby. But we easily lose sight of Him, lost in the deep craters and rubble of our brokenness. A caring, human friend with an open heart could be the first step back.
Because we know we’re lost. We know we’ve lost sight of grace and the shoreline, completely. But we don’t know what to pray for anymore. We’re so afraid of being let down. And it’s so hard to trust when nothing seems to have turned out right.
So be that friend.
*Lines from the classic song of loss, Fire and Rain, by James Taylor
Categories: My Story: Turn, Turn, Turn