Right after I was widowed, my heart was raw. It was wide open, exposed, and vulnerable to all and any heartache that I saw and heard. It didn’t matter if that tragedy was near or far. If I heard it, saw it, read it, my heart ached for those involved. My empathetic senses were turned up to full power. If I heard of people losing loved ones, I was ripped back to my early moments of loss and sadness. It truly was like going back to square one and experiencing my own loss of Dave as if it were the first moments again.

I was extremely raw the first ten months or so…arguably the entire first year, maybe two. I was weary from my loss, my lack of control of my sadness and my tears. Through the help of support groups, individual grief therapy, and living my grief, I began the process of insulating my heart again.

I say again, because I had already learned this skill through my ministry. While working with young people and their families, I would be a place they came with their own tragedy and issues for help and guidance. A skill I was taught during my ministry years was to leave their tragedies and issues at the church when I left. It was very hard to learn, but it was essential. It helped me to live in the present with my own family and not be continually burdened by the struggles of others that I experienced daily.

It started in a very literal way, I would use a physical sign to leave them behind at my office; maybe asking them to stay behind as I closed my office door, praying for their well-being as I left for the day, washing my hands before I left sending the issues of the day down the drain, or shutting my car door as I left and telling them they could not come home with me. It sounds kind of silly, but it works.

In my final years as a minister, there were many trials. Teens in my ministry were killed in accidents, the church was going through the period of recognizing its own sins, and the betrayal by a colleague whom I trusted and worked very closely with were all very challenging. I can’t remember the name of the movie, but there was a character who would lift his arms and run his fingers through the leaves of a tree outside his front door whenever he returned home, leaving the troubles of his day there dangling in the tree. When he left the next day for work, he would run his fingers back through the leaves taking back the troubles, thoughts, and experiences of his work and life outside of his home. Eventually, this became my main imagery of letting go as I returned home. It didn’t always work, but most days, it kept the ministry of church outside the door of my home and let me be present to my family.

So in those early years of loss, I remembered and began insulating my heart again. I was insulating against the triggers of grief that I knew. It was difficult because in the beginning, nearly everything was a trigger. I had to insulate my heart without cutting it off from loving all together.

Many days, I now wonder if I insulated too well. I wonder if I have built too solid a wall around my heart in the hope of survival. I hoped that the insulation would be soft enough to let the love flow back and forth, but strong enough to not let me drown in the loss of that very love. It was a balance. It was a time of learning what to let in and what to shut out.

When tragedy struck up close and in person or outside my life in a more global way, I would carefully gauge how much I could take and then shut myself off…I would run my fingers through the tree in my imagination and let the troubles hang in the tree for me to pick up again when I felt strong enough to hold them again. When I think of it, it is really a very selfish thing. For me, it was also a very necessary thing. I needed my heart to survive Dave’s death. It was imperative. Many days, I wonder if I have become too skillful at keeping my heart insulated.

This past week brought the news of the tornado in Oklahoma. On Mondays, I volunteer with/for a friend at her church. She is a dear friend. She is from Oklahoma. Her family lives only blocks from the area of impact. She pushed into my insulated heart with her concerns for her family. She chipped away at the tough exterior when she told me of the school children trapped. The sadness began to seep into my heart. It began to hurt again.

I also attribute this quick penetration of my heart to the children I have been teaching the last six weeks also. I spent six weeks teaching kindergarten and first grade. These sweet little souls have no insulation around their hearts and emotions. They wear their entire hearts on their sleeves. Whether they are joyful, feel wronged, afraid or happy, it all is all right there on the surface.

The emotions traveled through by these sweet children each day are transparent and immediate. I think being with them made my heart squishier. They let me into their little hearts right away. They trusted me, loved me and showed this daily with their wonderfully transparent emotions and behavior. I loved them right back. When I was finished with this six week stint with them, I was still greeted daily by their hugs, smiles, and some days’ tears and fears every day I was on campus. So, thinking of the teachers and children in Oklahoma brought me to tears and made my heart ache.

Something happened Monday afternoon as I drove home from my volunteer gig. My sorrow from the news in Oklahoma brought back my sadness for many of the kids I knew long ago. My mind was flooded with the thoughts of those precious lives lost. Images and memories of moments sitting with their parents in the silence of their sorrow draped over me. I remembered moments I haven’t let into my consciousness in a long time. Moments I have insulated my heart from very carefully. I thought of the courage of those who live through great loss and felt the sadness of that journey.

Those emotions have been consuming me most of the week. I have also let in the emotions linked with ending another school year. There are many goodbyes this year. Colleagues I love are moving on for many reasons. My own future is uncertain and this limbo always triggers my grief. Next week, I begin a new summer job and all the transition is draining my emotional strength. Add the holiday weekend, which still to my own dismay affects me in ways I often can’t expect. My insulation is thinning and my heart is feeling very squishy.

I try to remember that feeling emotions is okay. That it can be healing and lets others know how grateful I am for their presence in my life. I feel so exhausted though. This week, I can feel myself shutting down again as my heart opens and experiences the changes. I know from experience that this will be temporary, but it is taxing nonetheless. I find myself sleeping off my sorrow again and my motivation is waning.

I remind myself that this too will pass. I remind myself that it is only because I have been fully present to those around me that I feel this pain at all. I remind myself that my insulation has been balanced because no matter how much I try to build walls around my heart, people get in and I love them. What a gift!

I often joke that I am a Jane of all trades and master of none…the more I consider this, the more I find that there is one thing that I have been good at for a long time…building relationships with others. I look around and I see the relationships I build. I open my heart to those around me and when I am brave enough to let myself love them, joy comes. It makes the insulation around my heart soften and it will be ok. The joy is fuller because through the loss and sadness that change can bring, I am grateful with all my being that I have invested in people.

Even when I have a week like this past week has been, I am grateful for the gift of the wonderful people around me. When saying goodbye is heartbreaking, when the world throws tragedy of others toward my wounded heart, when the insulation of my heart is penetrated, it is testament to the fact that I am still here…not just surviving, but thriving and letting love back into my heart and soul, despite my wounds.

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Christine Thiele

Christine Thiele is a free lance writer, middle school teacher, and a former professional and volunteer youth minister. She has written for The Journal of Student Ministries, YouthWorker Journal, Grief Digest, OpentoHope.com, is a contributing author in several Open to Hope books and The Widow's Handbook (to be released in 2014 by Kent State University Press). Along with her writing, Christine is raising her two lovely and energetic sons. Since her husband's death in 2005 from pancreas cancer, her writing has been focused on grief and healing issues.

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