How to find meaning in brokenness?

Morgan Harper Nichols

I’ve been thinking a lot about the big defining moments that suddenly alter our course of life – some positive and some definitely not!

Often these moments stop us in our tracks and are so significant that we remember every little detail – where we were, what we were doing, who we were with…

Mine was a simple phone-call.

It happened around lunchtime on 7th October 2018 when my youngest son Ben suddenly died. He was twenty five.

It’s been twenty two months since the bottom dropped out of our world and I relive it every single day. Without warning life unexpectedly changed beyond recognition.

It was the day normal ended and survival took over. I became a different person and had no choice but to start reinventing myself all over again.

Every day since then I’ve been trying to analyse life; trying to understand who I am and how it’s possible to keep functioning when shock, trauma and grief literally ‘pulled the rug from under my feet!’

Even though it’s happened to me I still wonder how any parent can actually survive the death of a child? It’s quite honestly so unbelievably horrific that I have no words.

How can it ever be possible to live a purposeful meaningful life when a huge chunk of us is missing and all we’re left with, is an irreparable broken heart?

How on earth do we find strength to put one foot in front of the other and do more than just breathe when we’re empty and have nothing left to give?

How do we look happy when we feel so broken and sad inside?

Ben’s death labels us as ‘the family who’s son died’ and defines me as a bereaved mum – a title clearly no one wants. I don’t want to be that person!

The weird thing is that when Ben was alive, life didn’t revolve just around him; yet now he’s dead – everything I do, think and feel is affected by the empty void he has left.

He’s never out of my mind and though I can’t see or touch him I still feel his presence and hear his laugh! He influences my thinking and drives my determination. He’s as much part of our family as he ever was – just not in the way we want.

We hold on to precious things that to others are random and meaningless but to us are a lifeline.

For example the last text Ben sent to my daughter was…

‘Yeah why not

Those three little words have become her mantra. They give her confidence to step out and do the things she always wanted to do! She does it for Ben! It’s a beautiful way of connecting with him. If in doubt she sees him smile and hears him say

“yeah why not!”

Up until Ben died each of my four children were as precious and special as the other – all different but all equally amazing. They still are.

But Ben’s death has somehow elevated him to a place that is different from the others. He’s no more special than them, yet we all willingly allow our lives to revolve around him.

This is so much more than just keeping his memory alive!

Ben is right at the heart of our family and always will be! It’s the legacy he deserves and it’s voluntarily borne out of our unconditional love for him.

We all adored him and as the youngest member of the family by nine years, we watched our cute little baby boy grow into a beautiful man. We proudly celebrated his achievements. He wasn’t just a son or a brother – he was our best friend. We couldn’t have loved him more and he knew that. He loved us back just as much.

We still feel that love and find ourselves doing and saying the things he loved.

These days everything is ‘for Ben!’

Logo designed by Ben’s friend for the t shirts we wore when we took part in the Cardiff half marathon 2019 in his memory
https://www.domtsoi.com/

But the pain of physically missing him is relentless!! I’m scared that my life is so driven by sadness that it has actually become meaningless. Ben definitely wouldn’t want that.

I’m trying hard not to let this happen – not just for him but for me. I want to work this out for you too. I need to find out how others have managed to find the strength to live purposeful lives and share it for us all.

The one thing I’ve learnt is that when your child dies you have a innate connection to other parents who’ve also lost a child. You understand and support each other without the need for words. You feel safe in their company because you don’t have to pretend. We all speak the same language.

‘Your loss is not a test, a lesson, something to handle, a gift, or a blessing. Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.’

⁃ David Kessler (Finding Meaning: the sixth stage of grief)

David Kessler makes it sound so easy! Yet grief seems to have a mind of its own and I find myself in a constant mind battle. I have no control over the jumbled thoughts that ricochet backwards and forwards. They’re often completely irrational and as fickle and erratic as our British weather! I fluctuate between sanity and insanity and the transition from one to the other is so subtle that it scares me.

The big challenge is…

Do I want to live like this for ever?

Do I really want to settle for this bleak existence or can I muster up enough strength to fight back – to bring some sort of meaning and purpose back into living?

Maybe I’ll reread this journal in ten years time and realise I’m still saying the same things. Maybe challenging myself to find meaning is as far as I’m ever going to get!

As I write I’m sitting on a beautiful sandy beach in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. The sun is shining and the beach is filled lots of small groups of (socially distanced) people – laughing, sleeping, eating, chatting, bickering, playing… Most look reasonably happy but I can’t help but wonder what sadness and torment may be hiding behind their smiles.

I may not know their story or who they are but I take comfort in knowing I’m undoubtably not alone. Many carry unspeakable pain. We’re all survivors in one way or another.

I wonder how many look happy when they feel sad? How many are wearing masks that hide some hideous indescribable emotional turmoil? How many are bereaved mums like me? How many are barely existing because they’re completely disillusioned by life?

I have so many big life questions and so few answers. Is it possible to be truly happy and to find meaning when life is full of tragedy and disappointment and heartache? Can we actually find the strength to turn our sadness into something positive and meaningful?

Some very ordinary people (just like you or I) seem able to (against all the odds) use their pain to live extraordinary lives. These people have somehow managed to find meaning and purpose even in the midst of the darkest and most horrific tragedy. I need to find out how they have turned their lives around. I want to know their secret.

There’s a verse in the Bible that my husband and I agonise over…

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

⁃ Romans 8:28.

We both love God but struggle to understand how anything about our darling boy’s death can be good. There simply is nothing good about death!!

Death is bad!

I look back and feel angry with my old self for being so ignorant to the reality of pain and suffering. Did I honestly believe that if something awful happened I would be strong enough to weather it!! That my faith in God would enable me to praise my way through it?

I feel like I need to undo a lifetime of misconceptions as I move into this new phase; battling cynicism and disappointment.

But before you completely write me off as a heretic I think I’m questioning my own understanding rather than God’s wisdom. I’m still relying on Him to give me the strength to start over and to keep going when I’ve nothing left to give.

I’m reading a book called ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ by Mitch Albom. Morrie is an old professor who has a terminal illness. He knows he will die soon but it determined to live his best life while he is still can. He says:

‘So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.’

⁃ Mitch Albom – Tuesdays with Morrie

I’m going to make Morrie’s philosophy my mantra because, empty as I am, I think it’s within my capabilitiy:

…devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.

These days people rarely ask me how I am – either they assume I must be ok or they’re afraid they might upset me by bringing it up. Either way I’m sure they haven’t forgotten that my son died. It’s not the kind of thing you easily forget.

But…

the truth is I’m not ok even if I look ok.

It helps when people acknowledge that the death of a child is simply horrific. It helps when people remember that my boy died! Acknowledging someone’s pain brings a moment of empathy that really helps – even just a little.

I speak for us all when I say ‘we are grateful for that moment because we need all the help we can get!’