Christine A. Scheller: When storms come
Hurricane Sandy was only the most recent in a string of storms for a New Jersey writer. But we are in this life together, she says. When we link arms, we remind ourselves that beauty exists in the world always, an icon of God’s grace.
November 20, 2012 | Like a thrill ride gone terribly wrong, Hurricane Sandy barreled through my beloved Jersey Shore last month. Except during college and a six-year sojourn in California, this area has always been home, the place where I grew up and where I have lived for most of my life.
When the storm was over, the terrain upon which my memories live had been torn asunder. Friends have asked how I’m dealing with the destruction. My home wasn’t damaged, but I have been through so many deadly storms in the last decade that they’ve been worried for me.
The loss of wealth, health, ministry, community and, most impossibly, the loss of my firstborn child to suicide have left me vulnerable, they think.
But I’ve become adept at responding effectively and efficiently to trauma. So much so that I sometimes think I should work in disaster response. Nonetheless, long after others here have returned to their daily lives, I will absorb the shocks, reflect on the losses and struggle with the grief. It’s like whiplash that sets in days or weeks after a violent crash or aftershocks that reverberate from an earthquake. And so tears will come for my battered community, but not right now.
The key that unlocks resilience
Crisis living. We think of it as a temporary state of discomfort. Sometimes, though, life can feel like one long, exhausting ordeal. It is draining, adrenaline-fueled, traumatizing, debilitating. If we’re resilient, we learn how to adapt and make do, but we cannot live this way for long without becoming depleted.
The same is true of grief. It must be given its due if we’re to be whole persons who honor that which has been loved and lost. But existing in grief for years on end is deadly.
I’ve found gratitude to be a key that unlocks the resources I need to carry on.
In the months after my son’s suicide four years ago, it felt like the earth had opened up and swallowed my world, like a nuclear explosion had hollowed out my soul. I was walking zombie-like through an emotional and spiritual wasteland when an artist friend sent a note encouraging me to look for beauty in the world. And so I did.
As I washed dishes in the kitchen of my former home in Southern California, the delicate splendor of bougainvillea crawling up a wall outside my window reached through my grief like a cherry-red first kiss. I thanked God for it, for friends who held me close and for severe mercies that told me God was there -- mercies like a funeral director who happened to recommend the very Jersey Shore cemetery where my boys and I had laughed our way up and down a snowbound hill in winter. Of course my son is buried there.
Linking arms in loss
Likewise, in 2005 coastal Mississippi I saw the beauty of church groups gathered to meet the needs of a people devastated by Hurricane Katrina. My group had come from California to serve Thanksgiving dinner. Four months after the hurricane, the region still had no power. Everywhere I looked was a wasteland, but people welcomed us with profound gratitude because we came to help.
And so it was that in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, my heart warmed to see fleets of electric trucks from Michigan, Ohio, Alabama. I read on Facebook that police officers from the South would be patrolling the devastated barrier island town where my church lies uninhabitable. “Favors done for the South during Hurricane Katrina are being paid back. Friends don’t forget,” the police department status update said.