Expanded Heart

Anyone who suffers a major loss faces the challenge of on the one hand dealing with the darkness of loss and on the other hand living on with gratitude. We deal with this by learning to absorb our loss and be expanded by it. When we do this, our ability to live well and know God intimately grows. Trying to get out of the loss instead of being willing to grow through it is much less healthy and much less realistic, considering how devastating that can be.

This wisdom I read in a book some time ago. A beautiful, honest story for anyone dealing with major loss. The writer, Jerry Sittser, lost his mother, his wife and his daughter in an accident. As a single father he was left with three living children. In his book A Grace Disguised, he is very honest about his feelings, struggles, doubts and choices. He makes what he learned useful for people who lost a loved one, their health or work, or whose deepest desires were not – or very differently – fulfilled.

In his journey I recognize my own path. Over the years, people regularly warned me not to wallow in grief or self-pity. But in the past I always pretended that things happened to me (I was in hospital countless times when I was little) were nothing, even though I saw the pity in people’s eyes when I talked about it. I only started to heal when I recognized that it was bad. So when Amanda passed away, I just prayed, ‘Lord, I don’t want to wallow, and I don’t want to fall into self-pity. Will You protect me from that and show me when I do fall for it.’ I chose to trust that He would do that and decided to face my sorrow, my doubts, my despair, and my fear.

That is to say, I tried to face it. I didn’t always really do it, and to my great relief, the author of this book also did not always succeed. Sometimes Netflix was my best friend for weeks. The first year I opened a bottle of wine far too often and never before did I read so many rubbish books as in those days. Very often I didn’t want to feel, I didn’t want to face what I really felt deep down inside. The dark was so unbelievably dark and at times it seemed like once I allowed the tears to come, there was no end.

But from the moment we made the horrifying discovery that our daughter had died and my heart was torn, I was acutely aware of four young people watching me deal with this. I wanted my four living children who lost their sister not also lose their mother because she is no longer mentally present, too much overcome with grief. As soon as we got home and had to bring the news to our children, I tried to give space to them and to my sorrow, even though I didn’t really know how to do it. I ordered books about children and grief and asked other people to reach out to my children.

If I was not allowed to cry, I indirectly gave the message that they were not allowed to. If I was not allowed to wonder where God was in all of this, I indirectly gave them the message that they were not allowed to either. When I numbed my feelings and sat stupidly watching videos, drink another glass or going crazy doing the housework, I showed them: this is how you should deal with grief.

I didn’t want that. Sittser says the exact same thing and I love to find that recognition. He frequently failed hopelessly. The grief is just so big and the strength to do something so small. You can be so exhausted from all that grief that you just want to run and numb it.

But still, something that moves me deeply in this book and I really want to share with you is: You always get the chance to make choices and all those small decisions matter. At some point I finally decided I would only drink wine or beer in the weekends. I decided I would only watch a movie in the evening because it helped me think about something else for a while. I learned to plan moments to look grief in the face and what Sittser writes indeed happened, my soul expanded. I got to know God more intimately. Not immediately, because first there was that deep doubt and despair. But gradually.

‘Never was I so broken;’ Sittser writes, ‘however, I have never been so whole. … I once thought that sorrow and joy were mutually exclusive, as were pain and pleasure, death and life, but now they are parts of a greater whole. My heart and soul have been expanded.’ (p212) It does not mean that grief disappears. It means you can live on with gratitude, because your soul has grown and sorrow and joy can go together. Your heart has expanded.

In response to Jerry Sittser: A Grace Disguised. Quotes above are my translations of the Dutch translation of the book, as that was thee book I read: Jerry Sittser: Verborgen genade; hoe de ziel kan groeien door verlies.

First published in Dutch on August 19, 2020

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