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
I remain speechless after this one. And you’ve made me think of quite a few people who are dispirited and disengaged….
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Yes, they are all around us. I think it’s easy to feel critical or bothered instead of having a compassionate spirit. And most people are so good at hiding their true feelings.
My continual thanks for sharing your story in such an open and vulnerable way.. this helps me as I have gone through my own challenges in the last 10 years as God has worked on the inner parts of me. In the midst I felt so alone as few can understand how frightening it is even when you have a solid relationship with God.I am thankful you are on the ‘other side’ in the sense that you are able to share it to help others. You continue to inspire me!
Jeannine, I’m so glad my writing is helping you. You will always have a special place in my heart. So many wonderful memories of you from our Dot Rat days! Wish our paths could cross again!
Marilyn, I’m really enjoying your blog and Henry’s website. Will always remember you both with affection for our times in Bombay. You have a great way of putting into words some of what I’ve felt the past several years…thanks. Hope we can re-connect one of these days.
Greg, it’s fantastic to hear from you! Would love to catch up with you and Shelley. Yes, we share some Bombay memories that are crazy, poignant, bizarre and hilarious. Hope you and your wonderful family are all flourishing!
Yes, yes, and more yes…luckily, for me, I had a major depressive episode in 2000, where I had an opportunity to seek counseling for the first time to address ‘anger’. I grew up in the church and was a very good girl and if you ‘weren’t supposed to feel a certain way, then you didn’t.’ “Be joyful always!” For the first time in my life I gave myself permission to feel angry…similar to the losses you mention at age 14…but also for angry outbursts verging on domestic violence between my parents, having to grow up and be the grownup at age 10, for crying myself to sleep every night since I could remember, for the sorrow I felt when the preacher took advantage of my good friend sexually at 16 and splintered the church, when hypocrisy at a Christian college broke my heart and shattered my childlike belief in the church, when I was taken advantage of by an elder in the church when my last hope for salvation from an abusive 1st marriage was intervention by he and his wife in 1984….
I was able to process all this and more and it was VERY GOOD…but nothing could prepare me for 2002 (loss of a double income and my mother – my 4th was also born), 2003 (loss of the church as I knew it and many friendships), 2004 (marital separation and further alienation from friends), and 2005 (having to leave EVERYTHING and starting over from scratch) with my kids in a new location, 2006-2009 fighting in family court to retain full custody of my children, while working 2-3 jobs, going back to graduate school, and trying to make a home in a new community for my kids.
The divorce was finalized in 2010. Life has calmed down, relatively speaking, but peri-menopause is real and I have 4 teenage-ish children who now need to process THEIR profound losses. Lonliness is my only friend, as my first and last words of every day are begging God for help, insight, wisdom, and more faith. As much as I have given my heart away over the years, and I truly have, from my earliest memories as a child (although very out-going, gregarious, socially involved and active), I have always been profoundly lonely…in my happiest moments, lonliness is always lurking about, ready to step in and take over as my comforter.
How come, with the comfort I give to others, I am not able to be comforted? I still wonder…but I am tired and it gets harder…to serve… on any level…
I sound like a whiner…but I am a fighter and a survivor…so I keep on…but sort-of sadly.
Thank you Marilyn…keep writing…it helps many, of that I am sure.
Jeri, your story is so full of losses and betrayals, it is heartbreaking to read even the short version you sent me. I knew some of your story from conversations you had with Henry, but had no idea how much you’ve been through — and still are going through. I’m going to pray and keep praying that God will flood your heart with His infinite comfort. I felt that loneliness for so much of my life, too, even in the midst of ‘peaceful’ times. It’s only lately that I feel the comfort and presence of God in a powerful way, in a way that I’ve only experienced sporadically before. This morning we sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness” at church, and it’s the first time I haven’t wept through it. I always loved that hymn, but felt the words were true — but not for me, or not in ways that comforted me. In fact, the song always used to bring up a deep sense of desolation AND longing. Today I sang it with a full heart, believing that “ALL I have needed, Thy hands have provided” was finally something I could sing without doubting or feeling left out. Would love to talk if you want to — you can email me at email@example.com. It would be great to connect if you have the time and inclination. Thanks for your open and vulnerable sharing. I hope others will pray for you, too. You’ve soldiered through an incredible amount of pain and disenchantment — God surely has great plans for you.
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thanks Marilyn for being open and sharing. i pray that some day if Jesus tarries we would meet again. would like to share something with you. Not something on the pages of a blog or social media. But know it you and Henry are great guys. I pray you heal completely as i pray for others in this in this strait.
Marilyn I happened onto your blog through Facebook and I’m overwhelmed with the feeling that God is moving in an incredible way. My husband and I were in the ministry in the Chicago church for years and then led the church in Cleveland for a while but now we are out of the ministry. I have been in a grieving state for several years now and I can’t seem to shake it. I don’t read my Bible much and my prayer life is almost nonexistent. I was always a very outgoing, social person but have turned into an introvert who would rather stay isolated than to risk my heart being broken again. Since the HKL I’ve undergone a complete personality change that has not been for the better. I can relate to so much of what you write in your blog. In one way it feels good to not be alone but in another, I don’t know what to do. Sometimes the tears come and to stop them seems almost impossible. I’m 55 years old and I miss the person I used to be.
Your comments really move me, and I can relate to all you shared… In fact, it’s confirmation that I need to get back to completing this series! I’m in such a better place now, but it’s taken a long time to get here. I hope my next articles help you on your journey. If you want to talk sometime, please send me a message via Facebook and we could do that. Thanks for giving me the push I needed to finish writing “Turn, Turn, Turn”.