A dozen years ago I was booked to appear on Larry King Live. It was the year M. Shyamalan’s movie Unbreakable had come out, and the producers of the show wanted someone to join their conversation who had recently survived a true catastrophe. That was me. Nine months earlier, I had planned a retreat to Crested Butte, Colorado for several churches. On the way home as our charter bus made its way towards Canon City, we hit a patch of ice and then tumbled over 100 feet down into a ravine.
The resulting injuries and deaths put more than fifty families into a long season of recovery and grief. Over the course of the next year, we assembled everyone into small groups as places to work through their stuff. And there was a lot of stuff. Many of the youth had post-traumatic stress. Formerly outgoing, straight-A students shifted into neutral in nearly every way.
But during that season, we learned and grew. We enjoyed high trust and transparency. We celebrated every milestone together, and by the end of the year, we invited the entire community to a service of remembrance and thanksgiving. These families had made tremendous progress in a short period of time, healing at every layer. Recently a group asked me to speak about the lessons taught and learned during that year. I will share them with you below. As for the Larry King show? It never happened. Shyamalan and I were bumped by a “hanging chad.” (I’m not bitter…) So, when life interrupts, are there signposts that can guide someone through? Here are a few that I found helpful.
1. Crisis reveals (and can build) character
You have heard the saying, “What does not kill you makes you stronger.” Someone recently quipped, “What does not kill you sometimes makes you wish it had!” The Chinese word for crisis captures this very contradiction. It is a blend of two characters: danger and opportunity. So, I would tweak the old adage this way: “What does not kill you CAN make you stronger, when you learn to respond well.” As you’ll see next, learning to respond well can require a bit of a hike.
2. Life is a daily gift.
Think of how many times we wake up to a new day and feel entitled to it. I found after a season of grief, that the conclusion which is most freeing is that life comes to us daily, that it puts itself into our hands, and that we receive it as a gift. But that’s a bit of an unnatural view of it. This truth must be embraced before it can be helpful. When someone has a close brush with death, it is an obvious conclusion to see life as a daily gift. But for someone who has lost a loved one, it is a conclusion that lies high up a steep mountain with one narrow footpath to the top.
3. Put it on the table.
On the way up the mountain, people need permission to call it like it is for a while rather than to be pressed quickly towards the summit view. Isn’t it better when, let’s say you catch your pinkie toe on a large piece of furniture, that people NOT try to rush you to look on the bright side? In North America, I think people get about two weeks to grieve; then the world around them expects them to move on. There is very little time to say openly and honestly what we really think about it–good, bad and ugly. We need permission to put things on the table. The pressure to get over it quickly almost always leaves unfinished business.
4. It’s not all about you.
Somewhere along the path to the top, we can begin to tire of the navel gazing. That is a good thing. In some instances, we need to work things out until we are sick of hearing ourselves complain–whether in a personal journal or to a friend. Often an ah-ha moment occurs, where a bit of the bigger picture comes into view. I remember this happening to me once after losing someone close to me. For a while I reasoned with myself about the greater purpose in it for me. Then one day, I realized that there was far more meaning and purpose to it all than what it was FOR ME. That revelation was an important milestone that allowed me to put “feeling sorry for myself” on a budget.
5. There is a God and it is not me.
When life gets interrupted and things go splat, people press all the kings horses and all the kings men into service. Even if something extreme has happened, they sometimes expect for things to get back to normal. The old normal. I have found that this natural instinct can set a person up for frustration. Even well-meaning efforts to gain “closure” on something can give the impression that things will return to the way they were. Often that is not the case. Life’s interruptions can bring permanent change, but it need not be a change for the worse. What is more helpful in moving through such a season is to look for milestones. A milestone is anything that marks progress towards a new normal. They can bring a resolve to seek peace with God and to live above the circumstances.