“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” - Ezekiel 36:26
When I was a young mother, my children and I were involved in a devastating auto accident. One minute my husband and I had happy, lively, thriving boys ages 5 and 2, and in the next brutal instant we became a family struck by an unlicensed driver who should not have been behind the wheel, had a seizure, and slammed into our vehicle. It was a trauma that would leave us with physical, emotional, and spiritual scars that took years to heal and indeed, are still healing more than twenty years later.
I have no doubt that this experience changed me, changed the course of my life and that of my husband and children forever. There were many losses to face; gone were innocence and normality and a sense of control, my career trajectory, and the belief I could protect my children no matter what. The sting of trauma reverberated for years; even now when I am fatigued, fleeting glimpses of a red truck begin to haunt the road ahead of me.
Over the years as a clinician, I’ve worked with many individuals who have suffered far worse than me, clients whose loved ones died in traumatic ways, whose children were killed in accidents or at war or through violence or sudden illness or injury. From my own life and from my clients I’ve come to understand how deeply traumatic loss shatters a life. And I believe shatters is an appropriate word. It’s like holding the world’s most precious antiquity in your hands, which is then ripped violently from your grasp and dropped to the ground where it explodes into millions of pieces. You crawl on the floor, blind and bleeding, and all the while the broken pieces keep slicing and piercing when you least expect it and are never prepared to handle it.
What I’ve learned about traumatic loss and the grief that follows is that you never do find all the pieces. You find some, but they never again fit like they once did. You build the container of your life and for the longest time it springs leaks, and you mourn all over again as you watch the memories flow. It can take a very long time to accept the new vessel that is your life, the one with the bruises and wounds and jagged edges and missing pieces. And beauty, because beauty can still happen even in the worst of circumstances.
I have no idea why my children and I were in our accident; nor do I know or understand why we survived. It took me forever to stop asking “why?” It took even longer to stop railing at God, at fate, at life, the universe, the driver that struck us, etc. The fact that I ever did stop my loud protests seems less related to change on my part and far more likely to be a case of me being like a car in the desert that runs out of gas far, far from a service station. I had no more fuel to make a sound.
I had a powerful experience out there in the desert, which was really my living room in our little house in Powell, Ohio. I was broken by the stress of nightmares, flashbacks, and fierce anxiety over our safety. The boys were taking turns in therapy as they, too, had to face their intrusive fears of danger and harm and a red truck that might hit us on the way to Meijer and hurt us all over again.
One day, I stopped talking in prayer long enough to truly listen. My banging heart slowed down. And it was then I heard the Holy Spirit’s guidance: “Drop everything you think you know about me and let me show you Who I Am.” It was a profound experience, a moment in which I finally stopped arguing with God so I could begin to learn to receive God. Pure grace, that mysterious power present for us all that gives us the strength to do the thing we think we cannot do.
I think it’s an instinctual act to harden ourselves amid trauma; to become guarded; to shutter our hearts. In order to heal, we are invited to do something that feels very counterintuitive: open up. And I truly believe the Holy Spirit is with us to help us, to give us grace and power and mercy in the process.
Annie is a Clinician for Cornerstone of Hope Columbus.