by guest blogger and Messiah member, Dr. Julie Bracken
I am the only child of northern European parents. My dad was an engineer at Boeing in Seattle; my mom was a stay-at-home mother. My dad was raised Methodist, but didn't attend. My mom was a strong, quiet Lutheran woman who took me to church every Sunday. Our life when I was young was comfortable, both financially and personally.
In 1970, when I was fourteen years old, my mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm; the cause of her death I only found out years later. My father was destroyed by the loss. He couldn't talk to me about what had happened, or what would happen in the future. He arranged to have women from mom's church come in the next day, even before the funeral, and remove all of my mom's clothes and many of her personal belongings. It was as if he tried to make our life seem like my mother had never existed.
The whole experience, from that first day and for many years to come, was a struggle for me. I didn't cry for her; no one told me that I could. I put on a happy face and I worked hard to be a responsible, straight A student like I had always been.
I quit going to church; mom wasn’t there to take me. But I never quit praying. Right after her death I would pray to God daily to never allow her memory, what she looked like, to slip from my mind. I had no photographs and dad left none in the house. I was frightened that I would lose the only vision I had of her.
My struggle with her death was a process, not a single event. In Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Joan Chittister says that struggle always happens just when it seems we have everything we ever wanted. She writes, “It is a sudden, unforeseen interruption of our perfect lives, the thing we thought would never happen to us...”
Having not processed her death adequately, I wandered for years unable to feel emotions; either happy or sad, either delighted or broken. In this darkness of my spirit I wrestled with feelings; the anger that comes with a loss and the feeling of abandonment.
But I couldn’t express this struggle outward. I never spoke of my mom, her death, or my longing for her. I never spoke of my struggle. And, as might be expected, the weight of that struggle tore me down. Chittister says, “Struggle is never done without cost. Real struggle marks us for life.”
It took decades, but recently I was able to confide in a psychologist what I had kept secret for so many years. And, while the loss has been processed and the emotions shared, it can never be undone.
I had guilt about my mom’s death. I knew I didn’t kill her. But as a child I believed that my struggle, my feeling of loss, must have been something that I brought on myself; I should have been able to make the pain go away. Forgiveness is not just for the other guy, as N.T. Wright wrote in Evil and the Justice of God, I first need to forgive myself. He says that if God has forgiven me, as part of living an authentically Christian life, I must forgive myself as well. I know that I am often hard on myself; that I expect myself to be a better person. My failure to express my emotions after mom's death was a struggle. It is through seeing God’s forgiveness of my sins that I need to learn to forgive myself.
In Jerry Sittser’s book, A Grace Disguised, he writes, “We cannot change the situation, but we can allow the situation to change us. We exacerbate our suffering needlessly when we allow one loss to lead to another. That causes gradual destruction of the soul.” The loss of my mother lead to the loss of or the inability to express my emotions appropriately. Sittser says that this is the loss that happens inside us, the second death.
Sittser goes on to say that we must enter the darkness of loss alone, but once there we will find others with whom we can share life together. He says that “when people suffering loss do find community, it comes as a result of conscious choices they and other people make.” After many years of struggling I made the choice to seek out help, to share my loss, and thereby start the process of emotional healing.
Chittister says that “Hope, the response of the spiritual person to struggle, takes us from the risk of inner stagnation, of emotional despair, to total transformation of life.” And most importantly, she says that, “Hope is a series of small actions that transform darkness into light. It is putting one foot in front of the other when we can find no reason to do so at all.”
I also believe that we have all known resurrection in our lives. Each of us has been crucified in one way or another. And we’ve all been raised up again.
Throughout my struggle I often asked “Why?” But, in the light of everything I have been given, I have no grounds for blaming God for my loss. The call to faith is not the call to surrender to a God who tries creation for the sake of trial. It is a call to believe, as Jacob who struggles through the night, that though we are in darkness, the dawn will come in its due time. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we need to look into the struggle to find out what the blessing is. I believe that if God is in the depth of the heart, no amount of darkness can extinguish that presence.
It was a difficult transformation to relive my mother's death and appreciate the hidden emotions associated with it. I can now talk freely about her death, my loss, and my feeling of abandonment. I also can express my emotions about other situations in my life. It was a long struggle. And even though the suffering is less now, I know that I will forever long for the closeness of my mother in my life.
“When we suffer, we long for it to end. When we are in pain, time crawls. It also darkens and imprisons our imagination; consequently, we are unable to see beyond the suffering that plagues us...Unlike the world of matter, in the world of spirit a whole territory that has lain fallow can become a fertile area of new potential and creativity. Time behaves differently in the domain of spirit.” (John O'Donohue in To Bless the Space Between Us)
*Julie is a retired optometrist and currently a student in the Masters of Divinity program at Geoge Fox Seminary. She was recently certified as a rostered professional of the ELCA as an Associate in Ministry (AIM) of the ELCA. She has extensive experience as a hospital chaplain and leads the devotion for Messiah's Monday Morning Group each week.