Turns out, of all the grief offenders, I might be the biggest offender of all. You see, I’m a person who detests platitudes. When my husband suffered a catastrophic brain injury at age 29, I rarely appreciated being told that God had a plan for us and that He wouldn’t give us more than we could handle (within 18 months, I’d been tasked to “handle” a rare caregiving docket in the form of TBI, my mother’s cancer, and my dad’s death).
By the end, I no longer believed in the natural order of things or the idea that our collective suffering had been divinely ordained. I certainly didn’t want to be coached to keep my eye on the prize or to search for those silver linings. I wanted to cry out in pain and to sit in it for a moment. I wanted my grief to be validated by others’ acknowledgement of it, and I didn’t want to pretend that today’s suffering might be tomorrow’s victory. I simply wanted it to be what it was: hard. And I wanted that to be OK with everyone else too.
Over the years, I’ve spewed a lot of criticism for the ways people bear witness to grief. I’ve pointed out the ways they’re doing it wrong—the ways in which they make it worse for the hurting. But a recent experience has me beginning to see that I’m guilty of doing the same thing: of trying to comfort myself with the same promising platitudes.
A year after my husband’s TBI, I began writing a book. More than four years later I’m finally preparing to put it out there in the world. But it’s a project that has consumed me; one I’ve developed uncharacteristic anxiety around. Will it be good? Will people read it? Will my writing do justice to the hardest experience of my life?
I’ve spent more time fretting about this project than just about anything in my life. And the other day I was struck with an epiphanal tidal wave. It stopped me in my tracks. This book is my silver lining. I tried to unpack that for a minute: what had I been telling myself about this book that allowed me to get so completely attached to a single outcome? After all, a book does not define me. Neither my roles nor my abilities define who I am at my core. On the surface, I am a writer, a teacher, a mom, and about a hundred other things. But I know from watching my husband instantly lose and mourn the things he once thought defined him that it’s dangerous to attach our self-worth to anything other than our character.
So why, I wondered, was it so important for me to find success with this one endeavor? Maybe it’s because I’ve poured my every spare minute into writing this book. Maybe it’s because I’ve written such a deeply personal story. Or maybe, in my unexpected journey to authordom, I’d been telling myself a different story: that if I could write this book, if I could conjure up something beautiful from the wreckage of our lives, that maybe in some small way, the terrible pain we’ve lived through would be worth it.
I’d never entertained this idea before. Had I, in writing this book, been trying to sell myself my own silver lining? Had I convinced myself that I needed some measure of success to justify or salvage my life?
The human desire to make lemonade out of lemons is only natural. Some of my most beloved friends are those who have persisted in reinventing themselves after a tragedy. These people are activists and writers and speakers and more. They are using their pain to offer healing to others, and I respect them immensely for telling their stories.
I’ve long wanted to consider myself one of these lemonade-making people, but now I see that the path to reinvention also means understanding your intentions for traveling on it. No book will give me my life back, nor restore my husband to the way he was. No public accomplishment adds value to my worth. I was – and always have been – a person of value. Tragedy does not diminish nor add to that fact.
Continuing one’s life after traumatic brain injury is not always a glamorous or celebrated journey. For most people, it is a quiet path, traveled imperfectly. The pain does not come with big payoff, nor should we seek balloons and fanfare to celebrate our survival. There doesn’t have to be a silver lining to make this life worthwhile. The joy of it, the reward, is simply getting another chance to put one foot in front of the other and keep marching forward.