Saturday, April 16, 2011

Stronger in the Broken Places

There are times in all our lives when sadness seems overwhelming, when hope is elusive. There are times when we can't believe that the sun could shine, flowers bloom and life go on when something so terrible has happened.

While some don't survive such emotional storms, most of us eventually come through the pain to a calmer place. Working through grief or recovering from a serious depression is not an orderly process. There are days of feeling better and times when feelings of grief, sadness and devastation return. We go back and forth over time, with steps forward, steps back, until we reclaim the daily functioning of our lives -- back to family and friends, back to work and purpose, back to laughter, back to seeing the flowers and the sun and feeling renewed gratitude for all life has to offer.

But we're transformed by the storms of life.

Although my childhood was not exactly typical -- with two life-threatening illnesses and an alcoholic father who was alternately abusive and nurturing -- it felt normal, if not always comfortable, at the time. I loved my family, especially my brother Mike and sister Tai. Because of them, I never felt alone.

The first emotional storms came with maturity and losses in love. The man I loved beyond all reason in college fell in love with and married someone else. And I thought I would die -- or never love again. So I kept my emotional distance from another very good man, stifling his love, hurting before I could be hurt. I was approaching thirty when I finally took the risk of loving once more. He was the man of my mother's dreams: a tall, handsome Catholic doctor. My mother was thrilled. I was so happy. He loved me back! We began to make plans for a lifetime together. Then life happened: an unplanned but not unwelcome pregnancy, the loss of our baby, his coming out of the closet shortly after he turned thirty, the tears, the anger, the devastation. None of this was anything people talked about openly back then. I felt terribly alone.

During a calm between storms, I met my husband Bob, who had been recently divorced, and we chose to love again despite the pain that had preceded our relationship. We struggled in those early days to trust, to fully commit and to take the risk of being vulnerable again. The loving relationship we have built over the years -- a rich mix of love, passion and tender friendship -- is a warm shelter in all the storms that life can bring.

But pain is still inevitable. There was a terrible year - 1980 -- when I lost both parents and my maternal grandmother to sudden death and, the next year, a much loved young cousin to cancer. And there was a time during that period of terrible losses when, despite the fact that I had a loving husband, I felt intensely alone in my pain. I thought it would never end.

But it did and it does. Life goes on. For all the anguish one has felt and will feel again, there are times of sweetness and joy. And the experience of coming through life's storms can make one stronger for the next and more appreciative of life's wonders. We become stronger in the broken places and more compassionate when we see others in pain.

I look back ruefully at a time when I was in my early twenties and was asked to write a magazine article on loneliness. Although I interviewed some mental health professionals and wrote a passable article, at heart, I didn't have a clue. Secretly, I saw loneliness as self-indulgence, as a lack of will and initiative, as a personal failing. What I thought -- though didn't say in the article -- was that people needed to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get busy with life. Would that it were so easy -- as I was soon to discover.

I saw the same attitude in some of the young psychology graduate students and interns when I went back to school and clinical training when I was in my late forties. When patients expressed feelings of hopelessness and despair that some inexperienced young interns were initially inclined to dismiss with a "Get over it!" sentiment, I found that -- having been blindsided by life more than a few times -- I could be with with them fully in their anguish, hoping, at the very least, to help decrease the loneliness of their pain.

My brother Mike, a Vietnam veteran who went to medical school after completing his military service, noted the same phenomenon: that medical students who were young and untested by life could be unintentionally cruel in their abrupt dismissal, perhaps masking fear, of another's pain. Having faced all manner of emotional storms in combat, Mike could relate to patients' pain and fear with warmth and compassion.

My sister Tai found her calling in life in the wake of two major medical emergencies. She had a singularly horrific experience giving birth to her only child. While her child was -- and is -- an incredible blessing, Tai suffered physical complications that led to surgeries a day after the birth and an eventual hysterectomy. She said that she had never felt so intensely vulnerable. Only a few years later, she suffered a cerebral aneurysm and was airlifted to a university medical center for emergency brain surgery. During her long and difficult recovery, she vowed to become a nurse in order to help others through similarly scary and challenging medical experiences.  Today, she is a labor and delivery nurse supervisor in a Seattle-area hospital.  She loves her work -- and is invariably supportive of her patients in their most pain-filled and vulnerable moments.

Sometimes I think that it's no accident that my brother, sister and I all ended up in the helping professions. Although our life experiences, even within our family of origin, have differed considerably, we've known pain from the beginning -- and have grown in strength and compassion in the process.

And there are instances where a painful experience becomes, over time, something quite different.

The man who broke my heart in college by loving and marrying another never wavered in his loving friendship, even during the stormy times, and is one of my closest, most treasured friends to this day.  The man I wouldn't allow myself to love has found love in a wonderful marriage nearly as long as my own. And he remains a steadfast and caring friend. The nice Catholic doctor who came out of the closet later collaborated with me on an award-winning book that has been in print 32 years, through six updated U.S. editions -- a book that has transformed both our professional lives. And while I'll never forget the anguished moment of existential aloneness when my mother's coffin was lowered into the ground and I felt the loss of two generations on either side of me -- my mother and the baby I had lost five years before -- I'm delighted that our family has, at last, a thriving younger generation -- my sister's Nick, my brother's Maggie -- who bring new energy, vitality and hope to our family.

I feel special joy and wonder when I watch my brother nurture his toddler daughter Maggie. The little boy who was beaten and ridiculed when he cried embraces his wailing daughter with incredible love and acceptance. There is safety in his arms  -- safety he never knew, safety that Maggie can always count on. His patience and love are unwavering.

What joy there is in holding another's hand, in helping another feel understood and less alone, less fearful, in giving your own child -- or other children in need -- the warm and safe parenting you would like to have had.

What a blessing it is to survive a life storm, to be stronger in those broken places, perhaps with some lingering sadness but with hope renewed and with a capacity to embrace life once again.


  1. Kathy, this is truly and beautiful and inspirational post. Your vulnerability and ability to face the hard things in life are what make you the wise and gracious woman that you are. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You are an inspiration! Yes, indeed, our life history helps us understand and empathize. It gives us another layer of depth and another layer of hope. Thanks for putting it all in perspective.

  3. Kathy, I had to go away and come back to reread this before being able to comment. Thank you so much for sharing your story and the deep wisdom and insight that have grown from your experiences of pain and loss.

    In the late 70s/early 80s I lost both parents and a beloved father-in-law in quick succession and the holes they left have never been filled. I too was very ill more than once in childhood, but was blessed in having two loving and dedicated parents who pulled me through. Reading your story has helped me re-evaluate and appreciate my own.

  4. What an amazing, inspiring post. Your path was rock and pain strewn, but you and your family actually did become stronger in the broken places. You should be commended for some in similar situations do not become stronger but become imprisioned by their pain and are unable to move forward. I have a friend in such a prison and think I will send her this link. Thank you.

  5. Thanks so much for your kind comments! I particularly value your opinions since all four of you certainly have had your challenges as well. I started writing it with you in mind, Sally. Perpetua, you're so right that loving parents can make such a difference. I had a conversation not long ago with a friend who is a nun who was my favorite teacher in high school. She was talking about a former classmate and friend of mine who is living in a prison of pain and inertia and reflecting that, on the surface, my own family dynamic was much more dysfunctional than my friend's. "But I remembered the critical difference," she said. "Your parents -- as crazy and out there as they were -- truly loved you. Hers were less dysfunctional but cold and distant. She felt an outsider all her life. You've felt loved. That makes all the difference." I agreed wholeheartedly.

    Patti, I appreciate your passing the post to your friend and hope it's helpful to her. Of course, it depends where she is at the moment in her life storm/crisis. If you could have seen and heard me in the midst of some of the above, you would have seen a lot of crying, raging and general whining about my lot in life until I grew past the crisis and got some perspective and my sense of humor back.

    One incident that stands out as the moment I knew I would survive my nice Catholic doctor coming out of the closet. I had spent a weekend crying non-stop, alone in my apartment. Finally, my next door neighbor, a wonderful gay man, knocked on my door, came in and gathered me in his arms. After I had cried on his shoulder for awhile, he said "I actually came to tell you that I'm taking you out on the town tonight. We'll have a great dinner and I've got tickets to a play I know you'll love: Glenda Jackson in "Hedda Gabbler." I started laughing through my tears, touched by his loving concern and amused by the fact that he was proposing to soothe my depression by taking me to a play about suicide! I threw my arms around him and said "Only you would take me to "Hedda Gabbler" to cheer me up!" We went, had a good time, and laughed about his choice of entertainment for years.

    We have a choice in crisis - to be permanently embittered and overcome or to keep living with love and hope. The choice isn't always clear in the middle of a storm in one's life, but is evident as time passes. I guess the secret is to not cling to bitterness and disappointment and to learn to laugh between your tears, which makes you stronger for the next challenge.

  6. For some reason, I dreamed of a picket-fence life. I got, instead, an isolated, lonely childhood, a failed first marriage, and substance abuse. Then I got a life. No picket fence, but real life in which most days are way, way better than I could have expected.

    I wonder how people growing up in loving, functional families manage to cope with life disappointments, since they had it good growing up.

    I'm ready for the sun to come out in Washington State!

  7. Oh Kathy, what an amazing post you have here. I was blessed to have parents who loved each other throughout their marriage of 63 years and who were able to tell each other they loved each other and were not afraid to show their affection for each other -- often we would walk into a room and find them having a warm embrace. And they were both always there for my brother and two sisters and always loving towards us. However, this did not mean that we children have not had our problems with our relationships -- often because the people we had chosen had issues that we had never experienced. We discovered that relationships and marriage are much harder work than we had any idea of from our observation. And I had some relationships that were 'doozies'! No my parents were not perfect and there were things I had to work out about life 'on the outside' of a functional family. But the greatest gift was knowing the love.

  8. Love really is the greatest gift, Broad. Thanks so much for your insights.
    Linda, you're right that real life, in general, is way better than many of us grew up expecting. As for those who had it good as kids, I have a cousin Jack-- the son of my mother's favorite sister -- who had incredibly loving parents and a great life as a child. He and his sister grew up to be fantastic people as well. But Jack has this semi-tongue-cheek routine he does about "Life Always Gets Worse". His childhood was so great it had to have been downhill in a sense. Those of us who grew up in less ideal circumstances have seen life get better and better!

  9. I was surprised at the history you shared. I continue to be amazed at the experiences of the blogging community. Thanks for sharing. We can all learn so much from each other.

  10. Wow! Your blogs never cease to amaze, inspsire, and touch my heart. Your incredible honesty and how you communicate to touch people is a testament to what I'd said sometime ago of you: a life well-lived. I'm so inspired I may make you a subject of my next blog at Token Rock. ;-) Love you.