It finally happened. All this time I’ve been writing online, four years now, I’ve never once received a nasty comment from anyone, or even a mildly negative one. But a few weeks ago I wrote an article for RELEVANT Mag exploring the issues raised by Angelina Jolie’s op-ed for the Times about her choice to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, and lo and behold. A nasty comment. About my “leftist” politics and my “unChristian” ideas – and my favorite part – my willingness to “take up the mantle of worldliness and unbelief.”
I’m a sensitive soul, but generally speaking, I can discern the difference between honest criticism and asshat commenters unleashing their fundamentalist fury. I’m not here to talk about why that guy was wrong, although can we take a second and have a good laugh over the fact that there is someone out there that can make my conservative evangelical family seem progressive, and my writing downright provocative?
But, moving on…
That comment has proved to be a great example for some of the hard questions I’ve been processing as I grieve, write a book about it, and be near to some friends who are carrying their own heartbreak. It’s had me thinking about faith and miracles and healing and comfort and hope.
It can be as blatantly hurtful as a person telling you that your mother died because she and your family lacked the faith necessary for “true healing.” It can be as confusing as a misappropriated Scripture tweeted in the middle of a tragedy or a hallmark philosophy plastered all over Facebook. It can be as well-intended as someone hugging you at your mother’s wake and reminding you that this is all just part of God’s plan. It can be as subliminal as using war rhetoric to describe terminal illness, using words like “survivor,” “battle,” “fight,” “lost.”
I’ve heard these words. You’ve heard these words. And if we’re being honest, we’ve probably said them to each other at one wrong moment or another. Whatever their form, whoever has uttered them, they incite pain and fear and confusion. Nothing makes a grieving person feel more hopeless than being told that their healing hinges on their ability to hope.
I was reminded of that on Sunday morning, laying beneath a pile of blankets and watching Steel Magnolias. I had intended to do something far less pathetically indulgent and self-pitying than ugly-crying alone on my couch at 10 a.m., but the words wouldn’t flow and I was in too dark a mood to be near functioning human beings, so I skipped church and brunch with friends and watched Shelby die instead, holding my breath for the cemetery scene, letting my tears fall where they may.
I know. I sound like an emotional eater. Some days that’s exactly what it is. I haven’t watched the film since before mom died, not wanting to be a glutton for punishment, because I’ve insisted so desperately on pulling my shit together and most of the time I tell myself that I’m “good” at it. But some days. I just can’t. And paradoxically, it was this very act of allowing myself to feel my feelings and cry with M’Lynn that gave me the hope and gumption I needed to sit myself down and work on the book proposal.
And I think that’s the point of this rambling blog post, of Steel Magnolias, of my book, and these stories of grief and faith.
I grew up in a faith tradition that, looking back, was full of Anelle-like theology. I was told growing up that God had a plan, that I just needed to pray for a miracle, that good things come to those who wait, knock and the door will be opened. There’s a little bit of truth in all of that, sure. And I was told to be glad that mom had died, that she was with her King, I should be rejoicing. For a little while, I did. I even meant it. It’s hard to be honest about the relief in knowing that she is no longer suffering, but it’s real. But after awhile that wears off and what I’ve really needed is to explore those concepts of healing and wellness and God’s will. I’ve had to ask hard questions and cry about all the missing miracles in our lives and wonder whether God and I operate under different definitions of healing. And I’ve had to get angry about that, angry enough to want to hit something or someone until they feel as bad as I do, angry enough to utter the words aloud, I guess I’m a little selfish. I’d rather have her here.
I had to get angry enough to finally be honest with myself and with God.
Some days, I’m able to laugh about it. Some days, I’m able to be around people that can help me find my joy again. Some days, I just can’t. And that’s not a weakness or an emotional binge, it is heartbreak, and it is ugly and hard. It is the “work of grief,” as Freud called it. Joan Didion’s “the vortex.” And it is teaching my heart that hope doesn’t hinge on the outcome.
We won’t survive heartbreak and loss by denying that it hurts, or waxing philosophical about the future, or trying to pray our way out of our mortality. We don’t survive by walking away from grief, but by walking straight through it, crying when we have to, laughing when we can, speaking honestly about how we feel, listening to each other’s sorrow.
The steel magnolia is the one that weathers the storm.