“Healing is not the absence of pain,” writes Lora Jones in her book “Song of a Wounded Heart.” While her book wasn’t the first time I’d heard this concept, reading it recently helped me gain a focus for this month’s column. Lately I’ve been thinking about grief. I actually just finished writing a series on my blog focused on church wounds, which for me, included grief. It’s been a therapeutic process that I have been glad for, albeit it was emotionally draining.
I’ve also been thinking about grief in relation to a specific date in November that always brings a lump of sadness to my throat. By the time this column publishes, I will have lived through it once again.
For 10 years, Nov. 15 was a day of celebration. My brother was born on that date in 1988. I still remember his first birthday and the gigantic mess he made of his chocolate birthday cake. After that first celebration, his birthdays came like clockwork. Each Nov. 15 began with a birthday candle in his piece of toast and us singing “Happy Birthday” while wearing our pajamas. In 1998, we celebrated year No. 10 in similar fashion. Candle in birthday toast. Presents. Party with extended family. Presents. “Happy Birthday.” Cake. Like any repeatable moment, we all took for granted that we would gather again for No. 11. Only, for our family, we didn’t get to. We didn’t know 1998 would be the last happy Nov. 15.
Each year as November moves toward the day, my contemplation increases. For those who know me well, “more contemplative” is hard to imagine, I’m sure. But it’s also true.
This year I realized with clarity that the fraction of my life where I had a brother in real-time is becoming small compared to my age. I’m now 36. I had a living little brother for 10 years, from ages 5 to 15. As I age, that time gets further removed and yet, no less important. I think there are those who assume that people grieving loss will eventually “get over it.” I say right here, my brother isn’t something to “get over” as if he was a spilled drink. He was my sibling. My playmate. He was a son. A grandson. A cousin. A nephew. A friend. A classmate. He’s not something you just get over or move on from. That language and expectation isn’t helpful. It’s also not what healing means.
Additionally, I’ve been contemplating the implications of living in a completely different community from where I grew up. Whereas my childhood community knew my brother and remember the tragedy, that’s not the case for the majority of my current friends. If I never mentioned him, they wouldn’t know of his life or of his death. My husband never knew my brother and wasn’t around when my family’s world stopped spinning. While he entered my life just a few years later and tried to reconcile the heavy grief that overshadowed all holidays back then, he simply couldn’t fathom the intensity–he entered my life, but the death wasn’t his story. My kids know of their uncle. In fact, they call him Uncle Kenneth. But the reality is, they don’t know him. My current church body didn’t walk with me in the aftermath, nor did the Hillsboro community. So, in my day-to-day world, Nov. 15 is just another day. Except for me, as my world slows its spinning for a few waking hours and I end up behind everyone else. Perhaps some would suggest ignoring the day. Stuff it. Keep busy. Don’t think. But I’d say, pretending is no longer an option. I’ve tried. The strategy doesn’t work. And anyway, that particular pair–ignoring and pretending–isn’t what healing means, either.
So what does healing mean?
While healing isn’t the absence of pain, it’s also not the absence of joy. It’s the realization that emotions co-exist.
Jones explains, “Healing is allowing joy to enter a heart of pain.”
I first remember this happening years ago when I realized that a dear pastor from my past shares his birthday with my brother. For this man and his family, Nov. 15 is a day of celebration. Because I care about him, I am thankful for his birth. I want to celebrate him. It gave me another element to focus on in the midst of pain. It was a small beckoning to pull back from my own grief just a bit to see more of the world around me. Joy entered the pain.
“Sometimes memories bring joy and sometimes they bring sadness,” Jones writes. “It’s okay to cry. Don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. And it’s okay to laugh. The past may bring a smile, or present situations with old and new friends can add memories to my life. Don’t stifle the joy either. In fact, I’ve learned I must express both joy and pain. When I avoid one or the other, I lose them both. The concept took a while to process. When I try to eliminate pain in my life, I find I don’t experience joy either. It’s comparable to a pendulum swinging back and forth in perpetual motion. If I stick an object into the swing of it, to stop it from swinging too far one way, it will also stop swinging as far the other way too. Likewise, the more I deny myself sorrow, the less capable I am of joy. It’s simple, really. A healed heart works again. It’s able to feel both positive and negative emotions. Joy and sorrow.”
Renewed thinking. Joy mingling with pain. That’s healing.
Malinda Just has been writing Lipstick & Pearls for the Free Press since 2008. To read more of her writing, visit her blog, www.malindajust.com.