I like to keep stuff.
Keeping things has been one of my long-standing coping strategies for loss because it gives me a sense of control. I thought that by keeping things, I would hang on to a part of what I lost, allowing me to feel better. Let me tell you: that did not work. Ultimately when you lose someone you deeply care about, there is no one who can replace him or her. When you lose a home, a job, or something else you deeply care about, there is nothing that can replace it.
You’re left with an empty space.
In addition to keeping things, in my twenties, I started collecting things, specifically things that reminded me of family. But I wasn’t trying to remember my real family; I was trying to create a fantasy family that didn’t exist. My parent’s divorce finalized when I was 8 years old and the fantasy of recreating that family began in my imagination and in my collecting things. Being so young, I couldn’t just go out, get married, and have children, so I began collecting things that families own, things that I thought I would want to own as a wife and mother one day. Those things gave me a false sense of hope because I didn’t understand the finality of the losses I experienced. By the time my husband and I lived in our first home, I had more than enough stuff to fill the large 3 bedroom parsonage. Then we packed up everything, moved two states away into a house half the size of that parsonage, and still, I could not part ways with all of the stuff.
In 2011, I finally had a family with a beautiful son, a husband with a stable job, and a home filled with possessions. So did my fantasy family become a reality? Not even close. What went wrong with my plan? I had been manufacturing this plan for nearly thirty years. Didn’t I have everything in place? Why couldn’t I finally make the sadness and grief disappear?
Instead of joy and wholeness, I felt angry and alone.
We have lived in Michigan for 6 1/2 years, the longest I’ve lived in one place since I was 18 years old. Over those years, I tried to let things go slowly. I participated in several neighborhood yard sales, sold things on Amazon and Ebay, donated to local charities, and have thrown a lot out.
One of the things I learned to do back when I was a teenager is take pictures of the things I could no longer hold onto…such as trophies. This is my Rookie of the Year rifle team trophy from 1992. I parted ways with it last year. If you look closely, you’ll notice he’s missing a leg… thanks to my brother who shot it off in our basement with a BB gun.
I no longer have to find a place for this broken trophy in my home. If my memory of this trophy and what it represents fades, I still have access to that memory in digital format. I created a special folder on my computer for the images of things I let go. I visit the folder annually and don’t regret not having the items anymore, but I do appreciate that I can still see pictures of them.
Last year, I focused on getting rid of things in two different areas. The first area was the momentos from my childhood, and the second area was all of the baby stuff I had from my son. I had been keeping those things, quite reasonably, in anticipation of having more children. Many of the things I had kept from my childhood were things I had been hoping to pass along to a daughter. But I had an important realization: hanging on to those things not only gave me more false hope, but this time the false hope was paralyzing me. It was becoming more of a painful reality month after month, and miscarriage after miscarriage. Those things didn’t remind me of what I had and what I dreamed of, they reminded me of what I didn’t have. All around me I was reminded of past hurts and an expected future that wasn’t becoming a reality.
It has been a painstaking process accepting the reality that my well-intentioned childhood plan not only didn’t work but had caused me a lot more additional pain.
In the first 3 weeks of 2015, I have donated at least 12 full garbage bags to charity and placed 12 full garbage bags out with the trash. I set a lot of goals for 2015, and I’ve had days of high motivation and elevated mood and days of feeling so unmotivated and down, I had begun to feel like a failure. With the help of my husband and my own personal prayer and devotion time, I realized the opposite is happening. Maybe I’ve slipped back into some of my old ways of coping temporarily, but it doesn’t mean I’m back at the beginning and haven’t changed at all.
As I have mentioned, I have given up 24 full garbage bags of my belongings in only a few weeks time! That’s progress! That’s a lot of stuff!
I have been able to identify the sadness and depression I’m feeling as the same feelings I felt last year in February when I donated so much of my son’s baby items and many of my childhood momentos.
I’m grieving, and it’s painful.
But it’s a good pain.
My prior experience reminds me that the intense feelings will fade. I will rise up again and move on.
The Bibles says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” 1 Corinthians 13:11
The empty space, as well as the grief and sadness, will remain this side of heaven. There may be times when the grief and sadness lessen for awhile, but they will remain in part because we live in a broken world. Part of spiritual maturity is recognizing there are many unanswered questions in life, the hardest being questions about suffering. We will not fully understand things like suffering until we are in heaven. For now, God has given us the Holy Spirit who empowers us to accomplish God’s will even when we don’t have all of the answers and who sustains us and strengthens us when we are weak.
I am not only mourning the loss of the belongings I’ve given away, I am mourning the loss of my childish ways. I have clung to them fiercely with naive certainty, determination, sweat, and tears, but it’s time now to grow up. Part of that growing up is realizing that I cannot allow Satan to weave his way into my sorrow and mourning with his lies that not only am I failing but that it’s impossible to live a new and wiser way.
It’s time to cling fiercely to God’s promises with certainty, determination, sweat, and tears.
(This entry on Empty Space is part one of an unknown amount. I’m simply writing and processing as I go throughout my weeks.)
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