What do you do when life is completely overturned from severe trauma? How do you make sense of the ongoing confusion? How do you keep moving forward through despondency?
Those are questions I've asked since October 2018 after my husband suffered a severe traumatic brain injury with diffuse axonal injury (see Murtaugh & Armstrong in this issue of JCN, pp. 144-152). His recovery was fraught with near-death experiences that emerged into months of arduous recuperation. My formerly brilliant husband now has poor short-term memory, language difficulties, and trouble with cognition and insight. A well-loved physician for 36 years, he now struggles to understand directions, use his cell phone or computer, and is impulsive and emotionally labile.
There were a lot of unknowns after the initial trauma and into rehabilitation. How much functioning could my husband regain? When it dawned on me this journey was not going to end, the sadness and loss were excruciating. I would live both with and without my dearest companion “until death us do part.” Our children would live with the ambiguous loss of their father—a loss that is more intense because of its ongoing ambiguity, confusion, and uncertainty (Boss, 2000).
I've asked God many times, What are you doing? Absorbed with depression and intense grief, I didn't get many clear (or at least what I understood as helpful) answers. A kind friend suggested spiritual direction and connected me with Strengthfor-theJourneyRetreats.com, a place for women experiencing grief and loss. Through this support, I started sensing an invitation from God to reframe life.
What is God reframing? At one point in the Strength for the Journey retreat, the leader asked us to think of a time when we felt most special, most loved. For me it was when my husband chose me. As I reminisced about that magical time when we met, the still small voice of the Holy Spirit said, I have given you a clean slate with your husband. Be infatuated again. Fall in love anew! What a freeing transformation to see God was giving me a fresh start. It changed my perspective from seeing a broken man to once again seeing my handsome Prince Charming and being astonished that he chose me.
Another invitation has been to reframe ways I think about myself. I'm a raging extrovert, creative, persistent, an overly responsible perfectionist—all decent qualities. The down side is I'm prone to talk too much, work too hard, drive people crazy (especially introverts), and feel doubt about being good enough. Life feels like a huge boulder I'm trying to roll up a steep hill.
After my husband's accident, I felt a vague, haunting sense of responsibility. Why wasn't I helping him when he fell off the roof? Was this punishment for some personal insufficiency? At the retreat, in a time of listening prayer (InterVarsity, 2020), a dear sister sensed God telling her to ask, “What if your boulder is the stone the angels rolled away from the tomb when Jesus was resurrected (Matthew 28:2)?”
The removal of the stone changed everything. It allowed Jesus' followers to enter the tomb, find the vacated burial garments, and discover Jesus wasn't there—all critical to revealing the resurrection (Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20). But like the women who asked, “Who will roll away the stone for us?” (Mark 16:3), I anticipate impossible, overwhelming obstacles ahead. The women expected nothing from God, much less thought Jesus was alive. For the first time in my life I thought: What if God has rolled away the stone? What more is he inviting me to discover about himself, about myself—things I haven't previously imagined or thought possible?
Reframing is hard, and freeing. God's Word through the prophet Isaiah takes on deeper meaning:
Come, all you who are thirsty... Listen to me...and your soul will delight in the richest of fare...As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts... my word that goes out from my mouth... will accomplish what I desire. (Isaiah 55, NIV)
Boss P. (2000). Ambiguous loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief
. Harvard University Press.