I was working on this post Friday morning—before the Connecticut shooting had taken place. As I was writing this, I was reflecting on how heartache can often feel awakened during the holiday season even if that heartache happened years ago. Then the Connecticut tragedy broke on the news, and I’m sure that many would agree, we feel a heightened awareness to not only our pain but for the victims we may never meet. How do we respond? What do we say to someone who is hurting? Is there anything to say? If there are no words, are there actions that will help? This is the heart of today’s seven whispers–seven healing exercises for the heart.
I have often joked with my counselor, a man that my husband and I have gone to for over sixteen years, that “This Christmas, we will have our act together and not need to call him.” One time he replied with a gentle smile, saying, “Me Ra, did you know that statistics show us that counselors are busier during December than any other month of the year? If you need me, I’m here. No shame.”
My heart takes those two words in and finds a little more oxygen to breathe. Battling voices that daily taunt me with reminders of how I am not measuring up to my own expectations, the words “no shame” are said and the truth begins to seep in.
Truth: it is not a shameful thing to feel heartache during the holidays. Truth: it is not a shameful thing to feel alone and undone during the holidays. Truth: my pain in life is part of what makes me the complex, passionate person I am, and does not need to be pushed aside for fear of ruining the holidays. Truth: the pain I feel one year does not always determine the pain I will feel for every year to come. The most important truth: my pain is not shameful because I am not shameful.
In a society that is loud, full of noise, and often feeds our broken need to strive for perfection, I want to share seven heart-healing exercises I have carried throughout the years. Some years I do them all. Other years, only one or two seem necessary. But each one is meant to create a space within my life, my marriage, my heart and mind, where it is okay to be — even if the “being” is messy. Even if the “being” doesn’t make any sense because those tears are from pain that happened thirty years ago, there is permission to still be.
1. Winter Walks. I have grown to love my morning walks during the winter season. With my smartphone in my pocket, I look for the smallest details to photograph that show me life is still present in the winter. In the season where my garden goes dormant, I still find certain plants, even vibrant colored berries, that thrive in the cold air of winter. These are the plants that inspire me, catch my eye, and slow me down to remember that life can survive this season too.
2. Nurture the Child. There has been incredible healing in my life and with my family, but it’s amazing how I still carry shadows of the pain I experienced as a child. The woman that I am today isn’t feeling the pain of past holidays, but the child inside of me sometimes still does. When I feel this child rearing up inside my heart, I know that I must make time to nurture the child inside me. This may seem odd to some of you reading this, but when you have spent years ignoring the child inside you, you must now spend intentional time acknowledging the child. Otherwise, the child will want to run your life as an adult. Does that connect with anyone? To do this—to nurture the child inside me—I go alone to the grocery store or bookstore, and I buy myself a coloring book and a new box of crayons. Sometimes I find a favorite picture book I once loved as a girl. I find a private, quiet space to color, to read, to spend time with the child within. By doing this, I’m nurturing her. I’m telling her that her pain is real, her fears are valid, and the adult I am today won’t leave her. Only then can I move forward—in a state of being fully present—because I’m no longer trying to push that childhood pain away.
3. Let the Pages Hold It. Sometimes we don’t want to let go of the pain because we feel like the pain is all we have left. When a child or parent has died, our pain is sometimes our most real connection to feeling them with us. This is part of the precious cycle of grief, and needs to never be rushed. But when we are holding our pain tightly, it’s sometimes hard to open our arms to those we love — especially our children. This is when I turn in my journal to the next blank page, light a candle, and start to write it all on paper. I feel my heart and hand push the pen across paper. If only for a short while, I know that having written my feelings down, the grief is no longer at risk of being forgotten. The pages are strong enough to hold it.
4. Ask for Silent Company. Have you ever had a deep need to cry, but not alone? I have had seasons when there were no words for the sadness I felt — only tears. I didn’t need answers or encouraging words, no matter how well-intentioned my friends were. I just needed the silent company of a friend who would sit in my pain with me while I cried. We often don’t realize that we need to tell people what we need. To give our spouse or friends a chance — when they care so deeply — we have to be willing to ask for what we need, especially when it isn’t pretty or reassuring. There is no shame in asking someone to silently sit with you. I will simply say “Will you sit across from me while I cry? Will you pray silently for my heart’s healing? And in doing so, you must know that your silent presence is living symbol that my pain is not too much to bear, not too big that it will swallow my world whole, not to messy that it needs cleaning up.” As a people who genuinely want to help those we love, we can feel so helpless when we don’t know what to say or do. Prayerfully think about what friend in your life has expressed wanting to be a support for you and could be this silent company. And don’t be surprised if they express gratitude because you reaching out to them, telling them what you need, empowers them to know how to give, love and support you.
5. Acknowledge the Pain. Do you ever find yourself fighting what you feel when you don’t want to feel a certain way? Does that ever work for you? I wish I could say otherwise, but it never works for me. My family has come through tremendous healing and restoration, but it wasn’t always that way. As a child, we often rented a cabin during Christmas and New Year. What was supposed to be a wonderful week of memories was often painful. My dad stressed about his business, losing his temper, and me often being his scapegoat, combined with the deep loneliness I’d feel when all the other families vacationing seemed so happy. Last year, our family was going to celebrate my mom’s sixtieth birthday at a cabin the week before Christmas. As Brian and I packed for the upcoming trip, I was growing more and more agitated; snapping at the kids, blaming Brian for every small thing, and all the while beating myself up for every thought or action that wasn’t perfect.
Brian finally sat me down and asked if we could push the pause button. Clearly, my heart was hurting, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it for fear of ruining everyone’s Christmas. My dad is a different person now, and the kids love their grandpa. I didn’t want to stain any of that by bringing up old, painful memories. He gently assured me that I was already doing a great job of robbing the Christmas cheer by my sheer avoidance of how I was really feeling, so why not just acknowledge what was really going on. By saying it out loud, the isolation was broken. The private conversations with shame were finally silenced. It takes courage to push the pause button. But I know that you can. And I want you to know that you have good company waiting for you when you do.
6. A List of “What is so”. Pain in our life often feels out of our control, especially the circumstances that surrounded the pain. Being laid off, losing a home to foreclosure, being diagnosed with your worst fear … every scenario brings us to a place of feeling undone. It is at this point, when life feels like it is spinning beyond our control, that making a list of “what is so” can bring tremendous peace and comfort. Yes, there are many things we can’t control or change, but for today “what is so”? What is true for you, your family, your marriage, your health? Make a list of as many things you can think of and then keep it in a safe place that is accessible so that if and when the whirlwind of unknowns threaten your peace of mind, you can reflect on the list of “what is so” again.
7. Act of Remembrance. When our second baby, Aidan, died during the pregnancy, I found myself dreading the holidays. All the Christmas decorations, scents of gingerbread candles, holiday marketing in stores, invitations to parties, all of it — caused me to feel more and more alone. All I knew is that it felt like someone was missing. How could we celebrate with someone missing from our family? That first year, I found a candlelight vigil that was being held at our local hospital for families that had gone through similar losses. I went and sat in the back row. I can’t remember what the chaplain said, but his voice was soft and kind — soothing to the edginess I felt inside. He invited us to come forward, in our timing, and light a candle for our baby who had died. We were then invited to write their name down on a Christmas ornament and hang it on the chapel’s tree. It seemed like a simple exercise, but taking a moment to act on my remembrance of Aidan was powerful and overwhelming all at once. I remember standing back from the tree, seeing his name on the ornament, my tears clouding my vision of the ornament and lights—all blending into each other. There was a place for him in this simple act, and this gave me strength to move forward.
Everyone has pain. Whether it is the dear families in Connecticut or the neighbor we see on weekends. I talked with a dear woman the other day. Her marriage is facing the pain of divorce, her kids are hurt and angry, and her mother’s heart is breaking. We sat and cried together, knowing there are no words to remedy a pain so deep. I emailed a past workshop attendee last week. Unsure of what to say, I wanted to send her love. Her baby boy has been battling a brain tumor: he is losing the fight as Christmas nears. A friend for years was recently been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, this Christmas is different than any other as she looks at her boys. Another family is facing the fear of foreclosure, the mom confessed how hard it is to decorate when her home doesn’t feel secure. Whether big or small, each of us carries our own pain. We are often lured to think our pain is a weakness or something that should be kept secret. And yet, all around us are people, friends, and loved ones who are searching for a quiet place where there are no words of judgment spoken — where pain is acceptable, questions can stay unanswered and heartbreak is valid.
But it starts with us choosing to believe there is no shame for us. This is the season when faith in the impossible is sung in the carols and expressed in the children’s Christmas pageant. I can’t help but feel my hope renewed when I reflect on the most unlikely setting, a manger, for a story that people would continue to share two thousands years later. Hope breathes in the most unlikely places, like the simple act of not saying anything when a friend needs to cry or coloring like a child again. The joy and the pain our life holds is what makes us who we are. We are living evidence that hope is alive. There is no shame in this, no matter how messy, especially during the holiday season.
To all my readers, friends, whose healing is messy, hope is still breathing, and have not given up on today, may your holidays be filled with joy that comes from the belly, tears that are cleansing, and peace that transcends all understanding.
Me Ra Koh loves cameras, kids, and parents, and spends her life bringing them together. See her new show Capture Your Story with Me Ra Koh on Disney Junior. Her book Your Baby in Pictures is a national bestseller. She is honored to be one of SONY’s Artisans of Imagery. Me Ra and her team of certified teachers lead CONFIDENCE photography workshops for women nationwide. She has been featured in The New York Times, Parenting, American Baby, Popular Photography, and her photography has been on exhibit from San Fransisco to New York. You can find her at merakoh.com.