Like a thrill ride gone terribly wrong, Hurricane Sandy barreled through my beloved Jersey Shore last month. Except during college and a six-year sojourn in California, this area has always been home, the place where I grew up and where I have lived for most of my life.
When the storm was over, the terrain upon which my memories live had been torn asunder. Friends have asked how I’m dealing with the destruction. My home wasn’t damaged, but I have been through so many deadly storms in the last decade that they’ve been worried for me.
The loss of wealth, health, ministry, community and, most impossibly, the loss of my firstborn child to suicide have left me vulnerable, they think.
But I’ve become adept at responding effectively and efficiently to trauma. So much so that I sometimes think I should work in disaster response. Nonetheless, long after others here have returned to their daily lives, I will absorb the shocks, reflect on the losses and struggle with the grief. It’s like whiplash that sets in days or weeks after a violent crash or aftershocks that reverberate from an earthquake. And so tears will come for my battered community, but not right now.
The key that unlocks resilience
Crisis living. We think of it as a temporary state of discomfort. Sometimes, though, life can feel like one long, exhausting ordeal. It is draining, adrenaline-fueled, traumatizing, debilitating. If we’re resilient, we learn how to adapt and make do, but we cannot live this way for long without becoming depleted.
The same is true of grief. It must be given its due if we’re to be whole persons who honor that which has been loved and lost. But existing in grief for years on end is deadly.
I’ve found gratitude to be a key that unlocks the resources I need to carry on.
In the months after my son’s suicide four years ago, it felt like the earth had opened up and swallowed my world, like a nuclear explosion had hollowed out my soul. I was walking zombie-like through an emotional and spiritual wasteland when an artist friend sent a note encouraging me to look for beauty in the world. And so I did.
As I washed dishes in the kitchen of my former home in Southern California, the delicate splendor of bougainvillea crawling up a wall outside my window reached through my grief like a cherry-red first kiss. I thanked God for it, for friends who held me close and for severe mercies that told me God was there -- mercies like a funeral director who happened to recommend the very Jersey Shore cemetery where my boys and I had laughed our way up and down a snowbound hill in winter. Of course my son is buried there.
Linking arms in loss
Likewise, in 2005 coastal Mississippi I saw the beauty of church groups gathered to meet the needs of a people devastated by Hurricane Katrina. My group had come from California to serve Thanksgiving dinner. Four months after the hurricane, the region still had no power. Everywhere I looked was a wasteland, but people welcomed us with profound gratitude because we came to help.
And so it was that in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, my heart warmed to see fleets of electric trucks from Michigan, Ohio, Alabama. I read on Facebook that police officers from the South would be patrolling the devastated barrier island town where my church lies uninhabitable. “Favors done for the South during Hurricane Katrina are being paid back. Friends don’t forget,” the police department status update said.
We are in this life together. When we link arms, we remind ourselves that beauty exists in the world always, an icon of God’s grace.
In his book “A Resilient Life: You Can Move Ahead No Matter What,” Gordon MacDonald quotes Thomas Kelly, who said, “We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?”
MacDonald goes on to say:
The old cowboy doffs his hat and says, “Much obliged,” as an expression of gratitude. I’m obligated to you, he is saying. The words imply humility: that I cannot get along by myself. They imply reliance: that I need the people around me, that I need God. They imply value: that I recognize the cost involved in the giving. And the words imply gladness: that my life has been filled with the joy that comes when human beings connect in gracious ways.
That’s why one hears in the vocabulary of resilient people words like appreciate, grateful and indebted. They are used to complete transactions with one another, and, of course, in expressions of worship to God.
Giving thanks for loss
In an article on the blessings of things lost and left behind, my friend David Rupert asks whether he can give thanks for things lost to storms or sands of time. Oh, I don’t know about that.
Can I give thanks for the death of my child? For his brother’s mental illness? For my husband’s physical disability? For a “superstorm” that tore up not only the terrain of my memories but also the ground upon which I’ve found healing?
The answer is a qualified yes. I can give thanks that I am not the same person I was before my child died and that his death led to a proper diagnosis and excellent care for his brother. I can give thanks that my husband’s limitations afford me the opportunity to care for him in ways he’s always cared for me. I can give thanks that these traumas have made me strong for the current one.
It is because of them that I know I will ride my bike over the bay bridge and onto the ruined barrier island to worship in my church again. The sights will be new and sad at first, but the sun will keep shining upon the cracked earth. It will call forth beauty and remind me that God is here.