Being loved by my mama was a life-changing, identity-forming experience. Those of you who were ever the object of her affection—and there are many of you—know what I’m talking about. She loved me so well and so thoroughly I have always known I am valuable and lovable. This knowledge buoyed me with assurance even when I struggled with low self-esteem and worry. When I would wonder out loud if her high opinion of me might be biased since she birthed me and helped shape who I was, she would chide me not to marginalize her. So I wouldn’t; the way she saw me became my favorite way to see myself.
As she filled me up, she modeled how to fill others up, and I would imitate her. I learned from her the beautiful phenomenon of how my capacity to love grows the more I give love away. She welcomed new people into her circle and heart without hesitation, proving that love is a renewable resource, never scarce or diminishing for those who lavish it on others generously. This example conditioned me to love instantly and without reservation.
Being loved by her and loving her back stretched my heart and soul to such a grand size, that her death completely shattered me.
Ever since she left, my brokenness has made me wonder who I am. Thankfully God has assured me throughout my grief that I am his beloved and his treasure. By his grace, I have not doubted my value or the fact that he is at work in me. Also, mercifully, I have never experienced a lack of love. I am fiercely loved by my family, my husband, my boys, and my friends. This love has held the shattered pieces of my identity together and allowed me to live and love in my brokenness.
But my new reality has made me a mystery to myself. Life and even the reflection in the mirror are at times disorienting and unrecognizable without my mama. It is actually as if my lens through which I viewed the world and myself shattered with me. I can see reflections of myself in the fragments, but I cannot see the whole picture without Mama's lens to look through. How do I make decisions without her assurance that I am wise? How do I handle a difficult day without her confidence that I am capable? How do I fully celebrate a victory without her happy dance and I’m-not-surprised-because-you’re-my-daughter-after-all smile?
I have found myself in conversations with people who are wonderfully self-aware. They talk about their introverted or extraverted tendencies, and I realize I have no idea which one I am. I had always been an extravert, but grief sometimes required solitude. What am I now? I sometimes find myself frozen and panicked by an inability to make simple decisions. I cannot find a firm desire amidst my broken pieces—whether it is about something important like what job I should pursue or small like what to have for dinner. My mind feels trapped between vague memories of how I would have reacted or felt before Mama died and how slippery my feelings are now, half decisions sliding through my fingers before I can grasp them and move forward. Decision making feels more impossible when my grief is at its most intense. Ryan knows when he comes home to me crying in the kitchen because I can’t figure out what to make for dinner, I am really missing Mama and he needs to hug me and order Thai food (things I know I love even when I don’t know anything else: hugs and Thai food).
This weekend, Ryan and I got to go to the most amazing retreat through our church. I took lots of personality assessments before we went, and on the first morning Pastor Jer handed me a binder full of my results. Pages and pages of proof that I have a formed identity. I read each page with wonder and surprise. I knew this person the pages described, and I recognized her beauty and strength. She was not exactly like I remembered her, but I saw how God had formed her through joy and pain and equipped her to do his work. She was put together and developed by the creator of the mountains and oceans. The binder reintroduced me to myself with kindness and care. That night, Jer asked us to fill in the blank: God thinks I am _______. The answer jumped to my lips from God’s heart: “God thinks I am WHOLE.”
The next morning, though, I woke up and my heart immediately throbbed with pain. It was my mama’s birthday. Her birthday without her presence hurt so much I felt reduced to that old picture of myself: loved by God—sure—but mostly just hurting, grieving, shattered girl. The leftover remnants of a beautiful love and a terrible loss.
And yet I felt God pressing the concept of wholeness into my identity. I was flooded with the understanding that I don’t have to understand for something to be true. I am absolutely broken AND whole. Only through God can this be true. I had believed wholeness would piece me back together. The reality is actually much more lovely: my brokenness does not mean I am missing pieces of myself; it means I have more room for God and everyone else. Every wall is penetrable. Nothing is blocked off. When pain breaks another piece of me apart, there is less resistance for hope, peace, love, new relationships, and old relationships growing deeper to flow through me. The scary part is how little protection I have from new pain. Mama’s absence still breaks my heart. But when that pain feels fresh again or new pain comes, there’s no place for it to take root and become my identity. Joanna Macy says, “The heart that breaks open can contain the universe.”
I am humbled and awed by how brokenness can be a strong part of who I am; how it can make me flexible, stretchable and have more room for love and joy to flow freely through me; how it can expand my capacity to follow Jesus. My brokenness is the very thing that often brings my God close to me, for “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Maybe someday, God will piece me together again, but for now I want to fully embrace the ME who is able to let people, experiences, and grace fill the crevices between all the pieces of me.
May you find kindness and acceptance for who you are today. May you feel formed, held together, and opened wide by the creator of the universe. May you be challenged to love in a way that expands people’s hearts. And may you feel joy and love flowing through your broken spots.