Tears drenched my pillow as I willed myself to breathe. In. Out. In. Out. An exercise in futility, I tried to muffle the slight gasping sounds each time my breath caught. My eyes would certainly display a puffy redness the next morning. At least I’d wear sunglasses most of the day as my toes would burrow into the white sand. How many memories would pelt me tomorrow?
Sure, it had crossed my mind that a vacation to the very place I spent my last two vacations with my mom might stir emotions. But I never expected grief of this magnitude.
Driving toward the Gulf Coast, each building seemed to hurl an arrow straight to my heart.
I saw the first restaurant we enjoyed four years ago — the Oyster House. That was when Mom was relatively healthy, considering her terminal cancer diagnosis. Chemo treatments had taken their toll, she wore a wig, and neuropathy caused discomfort, but she managed.
We turned and came upon Royal Palms, the condo we stayed at that first year. At the time, we thought it would be our last beach vacation together — Mom, Dad, my mom’s sister, my husband, my children, and me.
Just past Royal Palms came the Gulf State Pier — a favorite of Mom’s and mine. We all walked to it that first year. Mom never whispered a peep about her numb and stinging feet. She breathed in joy and contentment along with the salty air, enjoying the family togetherness in this paradise.
We took a wrong turn and ended up going around to Orange Beach by accident — the place where we stayed on our last vacation. That’s when the stinging paintball-like memories morphed into ripping daggers. It had been an “extra” vacation — one we never anticipated having together. Though a sweet time, it was also hard. Mom fought for every step. She could barely eat. She hid her pain and discomfort for our benefit, but we could all see it. At that time, we didn’t know the radiation she’d begin upon her return would weaken her more, and that seven months later she’d be gone.
Memories of my childhood vacations surfaced as we passed Alvin’s Island, Surf Shop, and mini-golf courses. Our annual trips were the highlight of her year. They brought her such joy, even those last two when she suffered so much.
Emotions pounding me like the waves not far away, I took to spilling it all out on paper.
Here I am on the Gulf, without her. For the first time. The place where she found so much joy, and I can’t seem to find it without her.”
I wondered if I could pull myself together the for my own family’s vacation. Finally, I drifted to sleep.
The next morning I surveyed the damage in the mirror, and sure enough, my eyes looked like I feared they would. But my heart had stopped bleeding. And in the following three days I was able to fully enjoy this vacation with my family. Though memories still surfaced, they lapped like a gentle brook instead of pounding me like tumultuous surf.
On our way home, I gazed out the window as I do every time I leave paradise. But this time was different. It struck me that the last two times we came to the beach, I left despondent, thinking (and in the second case, knowing), it would be my last with my mom. This time, though, the sense of foreboding had left. I had survived the storm I feared so much. Sure, I emerged battered, but I survived.
And that’s when I realized I needed to feel all the feelings on the first night.
I needed to remember the wonderful vacations as a girl. I needed to revisit the bittersweet vacations with my dying mom.
I needed to heave with grief. I needed to sob into the pillow.
I needed to write it all, get it all out.
Without feeling all the feelings, I couldn’t get through them. Past them. I would stay stuck in a rip tide that wouldn’t let me up for air.
Last week I found myself struggling emotionally in a completely unrelated area. I cried out to God. I wept. I ranted. I thought unreasonable thoughts. But nothing I could think of seemed to salve my aching soul.
But God intervened. He brought truth to my heart where lies had taken hold and lifted me out of the despair. As I reflected on the dark time, though, I wondered, “why?” Why did I have to go through all the turmoil in my spirit? Why did God seem so absent for that period?
That’s when I realized: needing to feel all the feelings doesn’t only apply to grief.
Sometimes we have to feel all the feelings so we can recognize the feelings, name the feelings, show the feelings to God and let Him bring truth.
Bringing the Ugly to God
If we continue to bury the feelings, how can we ever get past them? How can we experience healing?
It’s like suffering in our body and refusing to name it and go to the doctor. What was the one thing people in the Gospels had to do in order for Jesus to heal them? Get it all together first? No! The only thing they had to do was come to him. But that’s the sticking point. They had to come, recognizing their sickness and need of healing.
When we refuse to recognize our grief, our pain, our insecurity, our sin, how can we expect healing?
It all starts with feeling all the feelings, and taking those feelings to God. But it’s no surprise to Him — He already knows it all anyway. He’s just waiting for us to come, ugly feelings and all.
This post is an excerpt from the Journey with Jill “Coffee Talk” bi-weekly e-mail. To receive them in your inbox, enter your e-mail address below.