Working with Hospice taught me many unique lessons I would have otherwise missed. One such lesson found its way into my heart during a counseling session with a recently bereaved widow. She came into the office and took her seat opposite me. Unacquainted, we exchanged small talk before beginning our journey together. I asked her to tell me her story.
She paused pensively as if standing outside peeking into the windows of her own memories. Other than the sound of soft sobs the room was quiet. Her left hand clenched a damp crumpled tissue; tears carved long slow trails down her cheeks. She opened her mouth but at first nothing came out. It appeared as if her mind was frantically searching for the words her heart needed to say. He wasn’t perfect, but he was so much more than just another good man. He was her teenage sweetheart and the love of her life. They had been given what many only dream of but now her happiness had been laid to rest with him.
The frequent hospital visits her husband’s illness demanded had become an expected part of their routine. A brief scare, an unexpected rally, another trip home, this was the cycle she had come to expect. She reminisced, surely, he would pull through, he always did, but this time was different.
The memory of his dramatic final moments had become her tormentor. In the brief moment she had turned away from his hospital bed her whole world changed. His body shook like an autumn leaf pummeled by the wind. A team of nurses met her at the door as she hurried to find help. Looking back, it all seemed like a surreal nightmare. Slowly she retold the story of fading into a foggy background as experienced doctors and nurses rushed in and ushered her out. They worked feverishly to stabilize him, but even advanced medicine could not stop his advancing disease process. No one knows the power of the word gone until it is spoken in apologetic tones in one’s own unbelieving ears.
I can’t help but imagine her shuffling aimlessly back into his room in an almost robotic manner, stunned and in shock at how quickly her life had just unraveled. Otherwise chatty machines seemed reverently quiet, he was eerily still, and the hands she had held so long were already unfamiliarly cool. Although they were together again in that lonesome room she knew she was alone and he was gone. The sacred hour she spent with her husband before releasing his shell to the funeral home is not a thing to be lightly commented on. Those moments were her moments not to be shared. When it was time she packed her things and tearfully left the room shutting the door behind her.
As she told her story the continual re-occurrence of the last time she saw him alive made one thing abundantly clear to me. She was being held hostage by the traumatic memory of his death. A life time of memories were being starved and suppressed by the torment of one traumatic moment. That unavoidable picture was the terrorist that haunted her sleep, chased the taste from her food, and posted a closed sign on the door of her heart. There were so many rooms in the house of her grief begging to be visited, but one memory locked her in and would not allow her to leave. We both knew it was time for her to go.
Sometimes to deal with a traumatic event or hostile memory it is necessary to seek professional counseling. Nevertheless, even an experienced provider cannot change the past. Among the most important forward steps in the journey of life is making the decision that you will not spend the rest of your days held hostage by the dark shadows of the past. For her it was a hospital room, for you it may be a conversation, a bad decision, an unavoidable event, or something else that no one else would ever guess. The past can be a terrible tormentor but it only holds the power we give it. If we are ever going to live again we must make the conscious decision to leave the past where it belongs and step forward into the future.
I would not be so naïve as to suggest that we can choose to forget our past, but I am confident we have the power to choose not to live there.
Overcoming a memory may take a lifetime; but not letting it take your life is a choice you must make. Whether it be our own sins or the sins of others, what if’s or I should haves, we cannot allow what was to decide what is.
Before concluding our time together, I encouraged her to make an intentional visit to the room where she had been held captive so long. Acknowledge what happened there and grieve what was not. I asked her to take the time she needed to observe her surroundings, rediscover those moments she had forgotten, and gather the things she would need for the future. Box up everything you want to keep and then say goodbye–not goodbye to him, but goodbye to that small cell that has held your life for ransom so long–and shut the door behind you when you go.
As we face this new year I encourage you to let go of what you cannot change and embrace the goodness and the mercy of God in the here and now. Don’t try to forget the past. File those lessons away that were learned from it, learn to see the grace of God in the midst of it, then leave it where it belongs and shut the door behind you when you go.
-Pastor Ben Webb