“I just wanted you to know I hear you. I see you.”
I received this voice message from a friend in response to a long, rambling complaint I sent the day before.
“In walking with people through grief and loss, I’ve recognized how powerless I am to rescue anyone, said Aubrey Sampson. “And I’ve been surprised (and humbled a bit) that people rarely look at me for rescuing. Rather, they’re desiring to connect, to be validated that their suffering or the injustice they are facing hasn’t somehow disqualified them from personhood,”
In that moment, I felt like a person again because I knew someone—even if separated by two time zones from me—saw me.
I could identify the feelings of sadness, anger, worry, and general angst. I could name a laundry list of circumstances in my and my extended family members’ lives. But I couldn’t let myself really pull apart the factors that had multiplied to equal this current spiral into infinite sadness.
With all the moving variables of emotions, there was but one constant: shame.
How could I ramble off an assortment of hardships when others I love have lost so much more? How could I complain about not having enough when not having enough meant being unable to afford a vacation for my kids for spring break? For others, not having enough meant not putting bread in the hands of their children every day.
I felt the anger at myself deep in my core, multiplying the hurt.
I was comforted by my friend’s assurance that I was not alone, but it didn’t help the guilt I allowed to seep into the ground of my being. It tripled the worthlessness that howled in my ears.
Another notification dinged on my phone. She proceeded to name issues she knew to be present in my life— ones I hadn’t mentioned the day before. Ones that ran deeper than the kick in the gut of a hefty financial blow or the frustration of parenting-working-schooling life that never seemed to add up to enough.
She knew the anniversary of the loss I faced, the loved one just out of surgery, the parent in pain, the inability to help loved ones drowning, and the struggling child. She named the yawning unknowns I faced and the dreams I’d lost.
“It’s a lot,” she said. “Anyone would be struggling under the weight of all that. It’s like you are a pillar holding the weight of your own life and the lives of everyone around you, and you’re cracking under the weight. Really, it’s so much,” she echoed. I didn’t quite believe her yet as I continued to weigh my pain against that of others in this always-lose game of, “whose suffering is worse?” But I tried...
We call them the kissing trees. Today they are featured in the middle of the open yard, the only two hardwoods still reaching for the sky after the whole acre has been cleared. They weren’t always so noticeable. Their bases used to be surrounded by brambles and weeds, their tops crowded out by less hardy but more demanding pines.
It’s why they lean so—they had to curve around the stingy evergreens to find the sun. They aren’t perfect; in fact, they’re quite awkward. There are dead limbs hanging off of one that need to be trimmed. Their growth is uneven. But we couldn’t let them go when we cut the rest down to make way for pasture. They’d fought so hard for their place here...like we did—Sadie and me.
Sadie bought this land and well-worn house before she turned 18, the promise of a bright future, even if it was going to take a little work. We were young, optimistic best friends with barely any life behind us and we thought we knew something of the world. We were wrong. But Sadie was right about buying this house. It has gone through as many changes as our lives have. It’s constantly under renovation, an ever-present reminder of how our lives are renovations, too. The other thing we she was right about is that we’d be friends forever.
Over two decades later we’ve weathered our shares of brambles, weeds, demanding circumstances, and uneven places of growth. Individually and as friends. We met at only 14. It was a decade later when I moved into the basement apartment of her house, thinking it would be for a short time. All in all, over the course of three times of moving out and back in, I've spent eight of the last sixteen years living on the same property as my best friend, watching our lives bend toward each others in irrevocable ways.
Our families have grown and changed and we’ve both left this house and returned to it. It’s seen our two families collectively through a divorce, death of loved ones, chronic illness, loss of jobs, recovering relationships with long-lost parents, losing relationships with long-loved friends, and so much more. It’s been witness to movie nights and bonfires, egg hunts and prime rib dinners, and more laughter than these walls can contain.
This week Sadie took scrap wood from under the shed and cut it down into boards for a new farmhouse dining table. She brushed away mold and rot, a spider web or two. They were tossed there a year ago when we pried them up to pour concrete for a porch. For over ten years they had supported the weight of those who came and went from the basement apartment.
When we brought our firstborn home from the hospital, we only had a gravel drive and dirt entrance outside the lower level of the house where Lee and I lived. We spent a lot of time out there though as Sadie’s back porch steps met our front entrance.
Lee spent the first week of Nadia’s life building that porch where we later hung her first swing. That yard is where we sat late into the night with Sadie and Ben watching the fire die, where the kids played and we laughed at the five dogs between us chasing each other. It is where we shared cups of coffee every morning when we were each other’s only “bubble” members as we weathered the lonely Covid pandemic. It was the center of our collective lives.
That cast aside wood is becoming the top boards of the table we will take with us when we move this week into our new home less than ten minutes away. Ten minutes between our two families, instead of just a staircase and a yard. That life we built here is changing again, as all good things must do. We know it is for the best. It is the space we need to allow our families to grow and become what they should be. But every new season carries with it a grief we can’t always name. Every new season comes with the death of the season before it.
New seasons begin and the landscape changes, but some things will always remain: the strongest trees that learn to bend toward life when the odds are against them; houses with good bones that hold generations of stories within their walls; the ties that bind friends into a kind of family that cannot be broken.
The heaviness that settled over my chest that morning was as dense as my husband’s weighted blanket tangled around my feet. I kicked off the covers but the anxiety wouldn’t lift. It was one week into the Coronavirus crisis that had settled over our country like a dense fog.
It started on a normal Thursday when I picked the kids up from school. Headlines were trickling in about rising virus cases in the U.S. but when news came that afternoon of immediate school cancellation, we all felt sideswiped. The torrential news that followed overwhelmed me so that one week later I was lying under its weight.
Shame was another layer of heaviness over the anxiety. My husband still had a job, something I couldn’t say a month and a half earlier. I already worked from home so, while days now became a complicated balance of work, entertaining and educating the children, and keeping the house quarantine-clean, I still was able to work. We had the ability and privilege to stay home; others weren’t as fortunate.
My heart grew heavy with worries for friends stuck abroad or separated from their family, others who had to leave everything to return to their passport country, and our friends who still work among the rural poor and refugee communities in Bangladesh—the truly vulnerable. We had it easy compared to what we could have known had this happened a year ago when we were still living in Dhaka. The guilt said, “Shut up, you have nothing to complain about!”
But my children’s eyes told another story that shattered my heart. They were no strangers to living in limbo. While many of their friends in their suburban Georgia school were learning lessons for the first time about battling uncertainty in highly scheduled and planned lives, my children had become pros in the last few years. And their little hearts were weary.
hey were just six and eight when we told them we were moving to India. Once the shock abated, they were excited to dazzle their friends with stories of monkeys and cows in the streets. The first blow came when we were delayed by a few months due to visa issues. Then, after both my husband and I had quit our jobs in the U.S. and our house was ready to go on the market, the path to India completely collapsed.
Our lives became a series of delays, cancellations, rerouting, and waiting. Throughout the journey to our new home in Bangladesh and unexpectedly back again, we learned the hard way about living in the land of the unknown.
Living in Bangladesh, our family learned what it felt like to feel socially distant—separated from our family by 8000 miles but also from our neighbors by a language and cultural barrier. We knew loneliness well. Monsoon rains and protests would keep us isolated in our flat for days. We were constantly adjusting to new norms and the coursing emotions of culture shock that would strike unannounced. Our son asked us weekly when we would return to life as usual, longing for the familiarity of the U.S.
That was…until we told him we would be returning “home” after just a year and a half. Then he cried, “but Bangladesh is home now!” The bittersweet swirling of emotions didn’t end when we returned to our passport country either. We stepped into what we thought would be life as usual and found that we couldn’t ever go back. Georgia didn’t feel like home anymore and we had to start all over again. We then struggled through eight months of my unemployment and were barely a month into discovering a new normal…that the pandemic had upended again.
I was telling a friend how it pained me to see my kids plunged back into the void. My son’s angry outbursts masked his frustration at being isolated once more. My daughter’s thinly-veiled anxiety at possibly never going back to the school she was just becoming comfortable in was obvious when she emerged late at night, unable to rest.
“Write about it,” my friend said. “Everyone is feeling the strain of the uncertainty now, too. Tell them what you’ve learned.” And, you know, it made me feel so much less alone to think of it that way. We’re all in suspension together and no one is going to come out of this current crisis unscathed.
All of America is learning what it means right now to live in transition—stuck between the life they knew and an unknown future. We don’t know what tomorrow holds and each day there is plenty of fear waiting to tighten its stranglehold on us. This isn’t a transition any of us chose. But as I preach the lessons to myself that living in a state of limbo taught us, here’s what I know...
“I accept whatever He gives and I give whatever He takes.” – Teresa of Calcutta
It’s not something you talk about in polite company—not being quite okay and being willing to admit it. When people ask how are you, they don’t expect an honest answer. I know; I’ve been answering honestly for months, unable to sprinkle sugary platitudes over the reality of loss and uneasiness I feel.
I’ve sat in the middle of transition, family illness, unemployment, depression, and feeling completely lost in the midst of it all. And I’ve named it, called it out loud to myself and to others. Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Uneasy smiles fade. Eyes widen or dart away quickly. Promises to pray are made. People run for the door.
We’ve been conditioned to hide away feelings of pain and restlessness, especially in communities of faith. We’re a little more comfortable if it can be medicated or counseled, easily solved, or prayed away. But prolonged periods of dread, of feeling the absence of God’s presence or not being sure how to pray, of not having easy answers—that we’re not so good with.
I’ve been finding consolation in an unlikely place lately, in the company of a woman who spent well over five decades years of her life not feeling consoled at all. But she was faithful anyway. She loved with abandon anyway.
For many years I’ve felt a connection to the tiny-framed, quiet woman who lived her life among the poor and dying of India. Like so many others drawn to Mother Teresa, I’ve read her words and been awed by her from afar. Perhaps it was her selfless work for the poor that first drew me to her, our common love for India.
When I was stumbling through writing and rewriting the hauntingly beautiful curves of the Bangla alphabet a fellow language student mentioned that maybe this saintly woman also struggled to learn the verbs of the Bengali people she served, the same people I lived among and loved. I laughed at the thought of the small but mighty nun struggling with anything.
It was then that dove into a couple of biographies about the Albanian woman born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, sainted as Teresa of Calcutta by the Catholic Church in 2013 and realized I knew nothing of her real-life at all...
Why can’t anyone just sit with me and be sad? Why is it that Christians don’t give each other permission to actually feel what they feel?
The words to my husband came out more forcefully than I had intended. Everything that had been simmering inside for days was boiling over and he was the unfortunate recipient. He had watched me cry for two days straight as we wordlessly carried the knowledge that someone we loved was hanging onto life moment by moment in an intensive care unit 8000 miles away. He stayed silent because he knew I couldn’t handle anymore well-meaning “let’s just trust God” comments by people smiling and saying it was all going to be okay.
The weight of personal anxiety and family tragedies on top of local and global suffering I was carrying was bearing down on me. I can only pretend living in close proximity to suffering doesn’t weigh on me for so long.
I can try to stuff down the stories of my friend who can’t escape her husband’s anger in a society where women have little voice or power. The eyes of the Rohingya woman who told me about escaping her burning village and trekking ten days to the refugee camp where we sat together burn in my mind. The hatred spewed in my social media feeds. The divisions in our world. More and more, my heart was dying to know how to carry the weight of these things to God. Rote answers and brushing it off wasn’t working anymore.
I held my breath when I started reading Aubrey Sampson’s The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament. I held onto a prayer that the timing of these words would be a balm to my heart and a lifeline I could hold out to others I knew who were searching for ways to express what they didn’t have the language to yet.
“Not all suffering is the clear result of something. Not all suffering is reasonable,” I read. “In our deepest grief, we don’t lament to find answers. We lament to stop searching for them. We lament to be still in the unanswerable.” I exhaled, a groan too deep for words that I know Jesus received as a prayer. Finally, I found the words of someone not rushing in to fix or explain it all.
Lament is not an expression today’s Christians know. It’s not something we have learned in our churches or feel we have permission to do. But it is written into the fiber of our Scriptures and God knew we needed a language to lead us to healing. That’s exactly what Sampson explores in her book that chronicles not only personal accounts of walking through grief but how God’s word brings us to the place where we see “God sings a louder song than suffering ever could, a song or renewal and restoration.”
“To lament is to speak to the reality of our formless, chaotic suffering and to ask God to fill it with his very good,” explains Sampson. She mixes stories from her own life and others with Scriptural basis for the prayer form of lament, helping us find our way through suffering to restoration.
If you’re like me, you never lingered too much on the parts of Scripture that focus on suffering. We all want to rush on to the good stuff, the victory. But then when we find ourselves in the midst of suffering (of our own or others) we fumble through the words to express the pain without dismissing the reality of it. We need someone to tell us God can handle our doubts, that not rushing on is okay, and that yes—hope will come, but not without walking through the place we find ourselves first.
One aspect of the book I loved and needed to hear was the focus on lamenting with others. We can do so much damage when we see others in pain and do not know how to walk with them through it. Sampson gives us tools to come alongside others in a way that will ultimately allow God’s healing for us all:
“No matter where you live or where you come from, it is within your power to love your neighbor. As you lament, you reveal the compassionate hope of Jesus to a world in need. Don’t rush to fix. Just listen. Learn. Be present. Bear witness. Humbly acknowledge any biases and privilege you might have. Above all, love others as you lament with them and for them.”
Not sure what lament really means? Check out this post by the author, "What Does Lament Mean?"
Have you struggled with how to express find God in the midst of suffering? How have you found your way to hope in those times? Where can you see a need for lament in your life or in our world?
If you have had an experience with this expression of prayer, can you share how lament has helped you on the way to healing?