Tag-Archive for » grief «

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016 | Author:

Over the next few months I’ll be working on a small e-book project about the things no one talks about when they talk about grief. Obviously, I write about grief a lot, and I wish when I was first experiencing grief that I could’ve found some pretty brutally honest, but maybe slightly funny book about the different aspects about the grief journey. I didn’t find such a book. So I decided to have a go at trying to write it. It’ll be pretty short, because I, at least, when I’m in grief, don’t have a lot of energy to consume or process outside information.

That being said, this is the intro chapter to the book project…

THINGS NO ONE TELLS YOU ABOUT GRIEF:

You May Vomit

What I remember most about the car ride to the hospital where my sister, Julie, would die is that I wanted to puke. Want is the wrong word, I guess. I needed to puke.

We’d just left the Carl’s Jr. in Grass Valley, California, and we had to make our way to a hospital a couple of hours away. My mom had gotten the call that changed our lives on her cell phone. My brother-in-law’s name, Chris, came across the screen of the cell phone that still had an antennae she had to pull up before answering.

I saw her face as I watched her through the glass doors that she had exited to take the call in a quieter place. Something about her face told me and my body that grief was on its way. That’s the moment — the moment my stomach dropped and started tying in knots, telling me it didn’t want anything in it anymore.

I poured out my drink and held my empty cup in my hands as we drove, sure that I would need it at any moment.

When we arrived at the hospital a couple hours later, my mom asked me how I was doing. “I feel like I need to throw up,” I said blankly.

“That’s ok if you do. That’s a normal reaction,” I remember her saying.

It wasn’t normal to me, though.

 

I was 14, and I’d experienced one death prior. A girl a year older than I, who had cerebral palsy, had died a few years before. I’d always had a soft spot for her and been kind to her. She couldn’t say any words, and her mouth was permanently open with drool streaming out, but man. I could make her laugh. Cackle, actually. Her name was Julie, also. I’d known her my whole life. She died on a summer day, and I was swimming at my best friend’s house when my sister showed up, walked down the path to the pool at the end of the yard and told us the news.

I was sad, really sad, but not nauseous.

Julie (my sister) played piano at the other Julie’s funeral. It was the first time I’d heard the church song “Better is one day.” The chorus says, “better is one day in your courts, better is one day in your house, better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.”

I watched my sister play and sing this beautiful song about a promise of hope and newness, and I thought of this younger Julie, who had never been able to walk or run or play, who had never been able to speak, or argue, or do anything except laugh or cry, and I saw her in those courts, in that house, being free and running and talking and I was glad for her.

But a few years later, as I walked into the hospital where my siblings and I were all born, and where Julie would soon die, I wanted to throw up. The thoughts of the courts and house of God being better than a thousand days here had no consolation. I wanted to puke all over that hopeful song.

I didn’t though. I went to the bathroom several times thinking I would. At one point I shoved a finger down my throat because the nausea was so painful. Still nothing.

I didn’t realize that this was not just an isolated incident, but rather how my body handles the blows of grief until nine years later when I found myself in my apartment, alone, collapsed and dry-heaving in the hallway in another instance of knowing my life would never be the same.

Literal dry heaves. The only time I’d experienced that before was when I had an ugly, ugly bout with the norovirus (the very violent and contagious cruise ship stomach flu) and I’d thought I really might die, because I was so weak and so violently ill. I’ll spare you more details.

After I got to a point where I could get up from the floor and get to the bathroom, I remember thinking, “I guess this is what I do when life breaks. I want to throw up and I can’t.” I showered and laid in bed, my body reeling in a way that doesn’t make sense from an emotional blow.

I was nauseous for the next 3 weeks that time.

And every instance of forceful grief since, I find myself jealous of those of you who do actually vomit with grief. Which is a very odd and petty thing to be jealous about. But that’s what this project is — admitting the odd, petty, and other things that no one talks about when they talk about grief.

So just know, you may vomit. Or, you may not. And that’s OK.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 01st, 2016 | Author:

When I was a probably four or five years old, I really wanted a horse. I’d been praying for one for a long time. Our next door neighbors had a pasture with horses in it. Our next door neighbors on the other side often had horses in their pasture. And while we didn’t have a pasture of our own, we had a sizable yard, and I thought a horse would really complete my already pretty good life.

My parents had told me that we couldn’t afford a horse, unfortunately. But I also was always taught about miracles and bible stories and I figured praying for a horse was the best way to possibly get one.

Then one day, my dad and I were home together for the afternoon while my mom was out with my other siblings. It was my nap time, and my dad decided to take a nap during that time as well. I woke up mid-nap because I was thirsty so I decided to go get a drink of water.

When I went into the kitchen, I looked out our big bay window in the dining room and in our backyard, under our big climbing tree, I saw a horse. I was so excited I immediately ran into my dad’s room and woke him up.

“Dad! Dad!” I shook him awake. “There’s a horse in our back yard! I’ve been praying for a horse and now my horse is here!”

He asked me if I was sure. So I ran back to the kitchen, and double checked. There he was, brown and mighty in all his splendor. My long awaited horse. I ran back.

“Yes! There’s a horse! It’s not a cow, I double checked,” I told my dad.

I was ecstatic. Prayer worked. Miracles happened. Life was good. And I had a horse.

My dad got up, still not believing the word of his ever-wishful toddler, until he too looked out the window and saw that there was a horse reaching up and eating leaves from our mulberry tree, just as I’d said.

“There’s a horse in our back yard!” he said, smirking at me. He told me to get my shoes on and we’d go out and investigate.

It was the first time that the harsh realities of life broke in and broke down my childhood whimsical belief that anything was possible — God didn’t just manifest this horse in our backyard to answer my prayers, my dad tried to explain to me. The horse, he said, belonged to someone else, and we had to try to find out who was missing their horse. It wasn’t ours.

“But what if we can’t find any owner and it really is an answer to my prayers??” I pleaded. He explained that if that was the case, unfortunately, we still couldn’t keep it. Apparently the cost of buying the horse was not the main cost we couldn’t afford — it was having a horse that we also couldn’t afford. (Information I would have addressed in my prayers prior if I had been privy to it.)

My dad spray painted a very red-neck looking sign on a sheet of plywood: “Horse Found.” We propped it up against our mail box pole so that anyone passing by could see it. Soon, a neighbor from down the street came and claimed his horse. His fence was broken and she’d wandered away.

My answer to prayer was led home to the her rightful place four houses down. And I learned that sometimes, even when you get exactly what you’ve prayed for, it isn’t actually an answer to prayer.

Ten years later, when my sister was in the hospital, in a coma, I was terrified to pray for her to live, because I was afraid that if I did pray for that, and she still died, my faith in God would be irreparably shaken.

Instead, I prayed like a politician: “May your will be done,” is all that I could bring myself to pray. And then Julie died. She turned 21 three days before, and then she died.

That prayer caused more turmoil in my faith and my theology than I think praying for her to live would have, because for years after I was left wondering if God had answered my prayer — if it was actually his will for her to die.

It’s been 12 years since then, and my prayers look very different now. They’re not often requests, and they’re not often political pleas. They’re just conversations. They’re just me talking to someone who’s been there with me through it all. I don’t bullshit God anymore and try to dance around things that I want or things that I want to pretend he doesn’t know. I just talk to him. Because at this point, I’m not sure that he answers prayers in the ways that I used to think he might. I haven’t prayed for a horse since I found one in my backyard and learned that it still wasn’t mine. I also haven’t hidden what I want in vague, maybe manipulative pleas, pegging my desires on God’s will. If I want someone to live, I say it, like I would to a friend.

In some ways, I think my faith in God has gotten smaller, but not less magnificent. Smaller like when a crowd gets smaller. It’s become more personal, and less majestic. He’s less the genie granter and more the father that I share my confusion and frustration with because I thought the horse could be mine. I thought my sister could live. I thought that life was good. He’s the one that I cry with because of these disappointments and tragedies. And for me, that’s enough. I don’t need a God who grants wishes. I just need a God who lets me know I’m not alone, and that he hears me.

Whether he answers or not, I think he hears me. And that’s enough.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Wednesday, October 07th, 2015 | Author:
photo credit: Daydream via photopin (license)

photo credit: Daydream via photopin (license)

The dress is white, sleeveless, summery. The fabric is decorated with large, orangish flowers — daisies maybe — flowers painted in a way to give the dress more a sense of womanhood than girlhood.  It falls just below my knees, or at least it did the last time I wore it. I was 14, and I wore it to my sister’s funeral.

It was one of my favorite dresses in a time when 1) I hated dresses still and 2) I was expected to wear dresses still to church every sunday. This one felt like me, where all other dresses failed to. It was beautiful but not too cliche “girly.” I was a hardcore tomboy at the time, and struggling to find ways to express my femininity in my style. This simple, beautiful dress had colors that were bold, but not pink, had a short length (for the time), but was still allowed in my conservative household, and was lightweight, feeling like summer.

When I was preparing for the funeral, I couldn’t figure out what to wear. The only black dress I owned was a little more formal, more of a “Little Black Dress,” and I’d only worn it to ceremonies and celebrations like my 8th grade graduation. That felt all wrong.

I could wear pants, my mom said. It didn’t have to be a dress. That felt wrong, too, though.

So I looked at my clothes and I saw the dress with bright flowers that felt like me, and I thought, I wonder if this is OK. It was bright like me. It was fiery like Julie. And I was comfortable in it during a week that I desperately needed comfort. My mom said that would be fine.

I wore the dress as I stood at the pulpit on the lower stage of the church, looking out over a sea of black clothes and sad eyes and I read a poem I had written for her.

And I went home and took off the dress and replaced them with my tomboy clothes, which would shortly thereafter be replaced in life by clothes I’d inherited from my sister, which wouldn’t be replaced with my own clothes and my own struggling style for many years.

That day, the dress got put away in the closet, and stayed there. I have purged my life innumerable times by now. Every time I move, or every time I get sick of digging through my closet, I get rid of things. But I’ve always kept that dress. Because years later I still looked at it and saw something of me in it.

“I could still wear that again,” I told myself when I left for college and took the dress with all my other clothes down to San Diego. I’ve told myself that same thing with every move since then.

But yesterday, a donation truck was coming by our house here in Wichita and I was getting things ready for it the night before, and I saw the dress. The dress that I have never worn again. And I put it in the pile.

I think that dress was proof that I knew who I was then. I knew myself at 14. And I lost myself in the tumultuousness of grief and life change and influential people and more grief and more life change and through all of that I’ve been trying to emerge as someone who knows myself and lets others get to know me.

And while it’s taken 12 years, I think I’m there. Not in an “arrived” sense. But even in the little things. Like the fact that I often will post something on pinterest and one of my friends will see it, not realizing I’m the one who posted it, and send it back to me. It shows how well they know me.

Having been sure I’d found myself again, I was able to let go of the dress that had served as a lamp post, a guiding light all these years.

“I’ll never wear it again,” I finally admitted to myself, “it’s the funeral dress. Let’s be real.”

But that wasn’t the point all these years — the point was I was trying to find the girl who’d worn it the last time. The girl who, in a sea of black, wore white and orange. The girl who wrote about grief, and shared it. The girl who was herself in the face of the storm.

I found her. It’s taken over a decade, but she’s back. I’m back. I’m back.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015 | Author:

Note: These are just in the order I wrote them. I’m including all 12 for posterity, but 1, 4, 5, 10, and 12 are my favorites.

#1 10.26.14 Fear of Fragile

All of us are dying,

that’s the crux of life

Life weights you down

like a child on your knee

ticking off the beat of time.

The living are the breathing

and with our breaths

we cry “too few.”

 

Too few are the breaths and the minutes

and the life that’s spent with you.

For when your breaths are done —

done permanent and final —

we are left with the real

test of grief’s bereft confinement.

Too small will be our breaths

our lungs suddenly too shallow

to take in air to fill our chests

because death hurts our vitals.

 

Fragile is the life of men

where bones break

and flesh is scraped

and hearts stop

in one quick moment.

 

I fear the life that breaks us

the news that knocks on doors,

“Ma’am, your son is dead,”

“Sir, the cancer’s spread,” or the

“I just don’t love you anymore.”

 

I fear the things that shatters worlds

in one swift-kick moment.

It’s hard to live not knowing

how to handle it.

 

The grief that comes and straps you down

like a straight jacket in an asylum.

It holds you, molds you,

then leaves you stripped and done.

 

This fragility is an assault on our senses.

To watch the life leave a body

is to see the flower wither in the sun

to see the short transition

from life to death is so heavy

like watching your own eulogy.

 

Where does the life go? It just fades?

Does it wither or run away?

Does it just cease? How can we know?

How can we ease ourselves

away from this fear of being mortal?

 

Does it ever hurt less, to have

worlds shatter in an instant?

 

#2 12.11.14 Dear Death

(Written after reading an update on my old college chaplain’s wife’s cancer. She passed away soon after.)

Death, go away.

You’ve got the wrong doors.

Death, pack your bags.

You take what isn’t yours.

Death, leave us be.

What are you looking for?

 

Death, you bastard.

You rape us, leave us bleeding.

You take us, no retreating.

You beat us despite our pleading.

What are you looking for?

 

Death, you merciless villain.

You invade common places like the kitchen.

You flip the switch in the prison.

You take the shooter to classrooms with children.

What are you looking for?

 

Death, leave us be.

You strip our joy and bend our knee.

You knock us down, make us scream.

You leave a hole where wholeness should be.

What are you looking for?

 

Death, please, go away.

 

#3 May 4, 2015 Again Alone Written in flight to start a month of travel for the story project

Another airport

another city

another day of traveling alone.

Wandering, wading deeper into the unknown

where I am unknown, without a home.

My heart is a vagabond, a knapsack

to hold its pain, tied to a stick of hope

slung over my shoulder as I trail along.

I am adrift, tossed in the waves,

propelled by the wind, weathered by

the raging sun. And I am searching

for the shores of a home,

but the best I find are islands.

And it’s just not enough.

So I set sail again,

I wash away again,

and I tell myself maybe this will be the time

I’ll find what I’m searching for.

Maybe this time I’ll run aground.

Maybe this will be the time I am found.

Maybe this time I’ll find myself,

and find myself being known.

Maybe my feet will find fertile ground

and roots will shoot down

from the soles of my feet

planting me firmly in a new

somewhere.

 

But until then, it’s another airport.

Another road.

Another city where I will get

to hear the stories of the people.

And I’ll move on,

again alone.

 

#4 JessicaWritten for my sweet, unassuming friend who asked me to make one of my 12 poems about her and who would never normally ask for such a thing, but thought that I would appreciate the bold request. She was right. 

She is the silliness of a four year old

housed in an aging soul.

Her beauty is pure, not boastful

her blue eyes shine like gold.

 

Her heart — oh her heart! —

Her heart is where she lives.

She’s made a home in that

space in her chest.

She invites you to come in.

Her life says, “Come sit,

feel for a while,

Your pain can come in with you.

I’ll yell with your anger

I’ll shout with your joy

your sadness is welcome here, too.

Tell me, is the temperature ok in this room?”

 

Her friendship is lunar,

always present, even in distance.

Always beautiful, even in darkness.

She participates in life like an event.

Everything is to be remembered,

even this very moment.

 

Her words are soft,

her squeals are loud.

Her life is loving.

Her parents are proud.

 

She is a well of life

smiling at the world from behind sweet freckles.

 

#5 Let me hurt. (written after hearing Abandon Kansas’ Jeremy Spring describe their new album saying “I’m just gonna let it hurt for a while”)

Just let me hurt for a while.

Don’t choke me out

trying to tie a bow around it.

It’s a wound,

not a present.

I’m broken,

not wrapped.

I’m bleeding out and you

used a ribbon as a tourniquet.

Don’t do it.

Please, let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left.

 

F*cks, hells, and shits

punctuate my language.

Pain leaks

into my sentences.

Because when I’m honest, sometimes

my brokenness still feels fresh.

I didn’t know grief could be

so violent without death.

Don’t demand a positive spin.

A silver lining won’t fix it.

So please, let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left.

 

I wonder how long it will be

before I can breathe through the memory.

Because right now, to remember

still feels like drowning.

Because right now, in my hometown

I still feel like an enemy.

Someday there will be more, but

for now this is my story.

So just let me hurt for a while — I’m sorry.

It’s all that I have left.

 

I’ve barely started

to trust again.

But I’m afraid of myself

in the end.

I don’t totally know

how to get around this bend.

I don’t totally know

if I’m good at being a friend.

When I tell the truth,

I’m afraid I will offend.

I want vulnerability.

I want to mend.

But just let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left.

 

#6 Close

Don’t get too close.

Don’t hold me tight.

My fear will lead me

straight to flight.

 

I’ll stay right here,

you stay right there,

or you’ll look for me and

I’ll disappear into thin air.

 

If you approach, do it slow.

Don’t try to take control.

If you do,

I’ll up and go.

 

But if you find your way,

If you become near, you see,

know that you’re dear to me.

 

If you ebb and flow

slowly gaining ground

don’t say it too loud.

 

It scares me when people know

that they are in my heart

it’s a power that could tear me apart.

 

#7 I Lie To Me

“I can’t do this”

I’ve breathed too many times.

I am quick to admit defeat to me,

But outwardly I claw and gnaw

at the challenge threatening to stop me.

I lie to myself

but it feels like the truth.

My words battle my will —

with each failure admission

I take a breath and try again.

“I can’t do this” is the mantra

on the way to my success.

Somehow my stubborn will

ignores my cries and tries and tries

until it is finished.

I am always surprised at

myself in the end.

Why do I still believe

I cannot do this?

Maybe some day I’ll believe in myself

the way my spirit does again.

 

#8 As It Happens (written upon moving to Wichita, June, 2015)

By happenstance I met a band,

their name: Abandon Kansas.

Once upon a time

they stopped through where I lived.

 

By happenstance I saw a band photo,

after many years had passed.

Facebook let us

become friends fast.

 

By happenstance I went on a road trip

and I stopped where the band lives.

I wandered downtown,

saw where the river splits.

 

By happenstance I fell in love

with the town on the plains and

I thought — “This feels like

what a hometown is.”

 

Two years later, on purpose,

I actually live in Kansas.

 

#9 — Our Father Who Art In Heaven

Our Father

Our. The peoples of the earth,

of all shapes and sizes

Our. The people from the dirt,

our colors pre-decided.

Our. Those around the town

neighbors to one another.

Our. Those spread apart who

don’t care about each other.

Our. The slave and the owner.

Our. The president and the lawn mower.

Our. The world that God so loved.

 

Who is

Is. Is there in our brokenness and weakness.

Is. Is Immanuel — God with us.

Is. Is familiar with our pain.

Is. Is the love that will not stain.

Is. Is the heart that won’t grow cold.

 

In heaven

Heaven. Where there’s no more pain.

Heaven. Where the racist is forced to change.

Heaven. Where the lightness reigns.

Heaven. Where death is illegal.

Heaven. Where we’re all equal people.

Heaven. Where brokenness is made whole.

Heaven. Where we are all loved and known.

Heaven. Here now when we bring love home.

 

#10 Break and Fall (written because it was the last day and I needed more poems)

Day break

When my heart breaks when I wake

I know thats a day break.

The day I break,

A day that acts

Just like you.

 

And heart break,

What does that mean?

My heart burns

But this isn’t heart burn

It’s heart break,

Like an earth quake,

It makes my chest shake,

But I’m from California,

I’ve done this before.

 

These walls are too thick

To let your pain score,

They won’t crack,

I’ll just be sore.

I know the drill,

Even if I don’t live there anymore.

 

Night fall.

When I fall into bed at

The end of the day

I know that I’ve failed again,

Fallen again into that trap

of routine where my days start

with breaking, end with falling

and its just you in between.

Grief, you dirty bastard,

you won’t ruin me.

 

#11 Just a day

Early morning dew rises and gives way

to the heat of the day.

The grass dries,

my eyelids rise,

my heart is full.

 

Coffee cup is emptied with the dawn long gone,

the day draws on.

My hunger paces,

my mind races,

my fingers type away.

 

Afternoon slinks in without warning

of the exit of the morning.

My thoughts slow,

heart rate low,

creativity’s around the corner.

 

Three o’clock comes and I don’t mind the sitting

now that it’s productivity city.

Here we go.

Here we go.

My brain chants silently.

 

Happy hour is just an hour

when happiness is a regular prowler.

The dusk dawns,

fireflies turn on,

I walk down by the river.

 

Evening brings the close of a day

normal in most ways.

I worked away,

played in spades,

and my heart is still full.

 

#12 “26.” (written on the back porch in the eve of my last day of being 25)

Tomorrow marks the anniversary

of 26 years spent here.

26 years since that August morning

that I came home gift baring,

as my eyes held newborn tears.

A slip and slide was my peace offering

to the boy and the girl — my siblings.

That’s the story I’ve been told.

 

26 years is long enough to hold enough pain,

and not nearly enough life.

My appetite for life is voracious,

so hand me my fork and my knife.

When I get to the end of it all,

I want to still hunger,

content, but not satisfied.

For as long as I live,

there’s always more that I want out of life.


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Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015 | Author:

story of jo - Not OKphoto credit: i’m not okay. via photopin (license)

We were sitting in a smaller room in the back of the church and I had made fajitas for my volunteer staff of youth leaders for the middle school youth group I ran at the time.

It was during the students’ Christmas break, so we had put the youth group on hiatus for 2 weeks to give our volunteers a break. I’d made this dinner to thank them and to get together to just get some honest critical and uplifting feedback from one another about how the past semester had gone.

We went around the room and affirmed one another in what they brought to the table. I was caught of guard with a lump in my throat when one of the volunteers said about me, “You make them know that it’s OK to not be OK.”

I’d never thought of those words before, but that has been a life mission of mine since then in all that I do.  I want to be someone who affirms people that it’s OK to not be OK. It’s also OK to be OK, if you really are. But that night was the first night maybe in my life where I realized I was doing something right. I was being who I wanted to be to the world, even though my world at that time was only about 20 middle school students.

A few years ago, I was really good at being honest and open with my story about the grief and grappling after my older sister had died. I think, and hope, that I was able to be someone who could reach out to those in grief and let them know that very truth — it’s OK to not be OK.

But in the more recent couple of years, since my life has changed and truth has been revealed about those darker, secret, shameful parts of my story, it’s become a current part of my story. No longer a “my sister died, and for a long time I wasn’t OK,” past-tense thing.

I still have many moments and days where I am not OK. I am doing really well, comparatively.  I’m telling my story with more ease. I mostly enter social circles without trepidation. I have stopped apologizing to everyone I meet for parts of my story and for who I am. I have the freedom to be known and to know others again. And it’s actually fan-freaking-tastic.

But I still have days where I’ll see something and will text one of my trusted friends things like, “just came across this. Well, F—.”

I still have days where I’ll send out the cry for help.

I still cannot enter my home church building without being paralyzed with hyperventilation and uncontrollable sobbing (which is really not pretty or fun, FYI). Realizing this when I went there last, in November, made for a very not-OK Christmas Eve night as well, as I for the first time in my entire life did not attend the service there, and I sat at home being not OK as my family went (which they should do and I wanted them to do… don’t read weirdly into that).

I still am wary of new people. I still have trust and commitment issues.

In a lot of ways, I’m doing great. But in a lot of ways, I’m still not OK. And I’ve just not been willing to lie about that. I’ve not been willing to pretend to be OK when I wasn’t. Which is new for me.

And what’s happened in the broadening not-OKness of my journey is that it’s enabled me to lead by example, not just to people in grief, but to people in all sorts of not-OK areas of life.

And while maybe that’s a depressing thing to be able to lead by example in, I don’t care. Because sometimes life is hard. Sometimes things just suck. And yes, there can be hope, and growth, and newness, and OKness once again. But what I find in my own life is that I have to admit I’m not OK before any of the rest of that ever comes.

And that is something that most people are not comfortable with.

Positive spins are many people’s security blankets. I just can’t do it this time around. You won’t find me sprinkling glitter on the crap of life. Other people can do that.

But for me, I want to tell you who are hurting, you who are ashamed, you who feel trapped, you who feel depressed, you who feel anxious, you who feel stuck — it’s OK to not be OK. Sometimes, healing starts with letting yourself feel the pain.

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One of the bands that I enjoy, Abandon Kansas, just released a new album that has a lot of that hurt and grappling, specifically with self-examination and questioning of the church and of pain, of addiction and seeing that we’re not as we want to be. When they were making the album, they did a kickstarter campaign and the main songwriter, Jeremy Spring, wrote, “I’m just going to let it hurt for a while.”

That’s what it takes sometimes. I read that sentence from him, and thought about all the times and ways I’ve had to just let it hurt for a while — all the times I’ve said, I’m going to be OK with not being OK right now — over the past two years, and I wrote this poem.

Let me hurt. (April, 2015.)

Just let me hurt for a while.

Don’t choke me out

trying to tie a bow around it.

It’s a wound, 

not a present.

I’m broken,

not wrapped.

I’m bleeding out and you

used a ribbon as a tourniquet.

Don’t do it.

Please, let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left.

F*cks, hells, and shits

punctuate my language.

Pain leaks

into my sentences.

Because when I’m honest, sometimes

my brokenness still feels fresh.

I didn’t know grief could be

so violent without death.

Don’t demand a positive spin.

A silver lining won’t fix it.

So please, let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left. 

I wonder how long it will be 

before I can breathe through the memory.

Because right now, to remember

still feels like drowning.

Because right now, in my hometown

I still feel like an enemy.

Someday there will be more, but

for now this is my story.

So just let me hurt for a while — I’m sorry.

It’s all that I have left.

I’ve barely started 

to trust again.

But I’m afraid of myself 

in the end.

I don’t totally know

how to get around this bend.

I don’t totally know

if I’m good at being a friend.

When I tell the truth,

I’m afraid I will offend.

I want vulnerability.

I want to mend.

But just let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left.

If you’re not OK, I hope you can find the freedom and the safety to know that that’s OK.


If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015 | Author:

I wrote this poem almost exactly two years ago about some of the people in my hometown. I have moved away now, but they are still people whose faces light up when they see me in town, who hug me and ask how things are and are willing to hear the honest answers. They have taught me more about grace outside of the church than anything within the church walls ever could. Seeing some of them recently reminded me of this poem from two years back, and about how true it still is.  They are the reason that I still love my hometown — these people feel like home even though the town doesn’t.

 

Pieces – An Ode To My Hometown (May 31, 2013)

We’ve worked for years to make a life together.

We’ve celebrated births and birthdays

promotions and graduations

holidays and everydays.

We’ve grieved the loss of

daughters sisters cousins,

brothers sons lovers,

the old and the young we did not want to let go.

 

We’ve sat in hospitals, backyards, couches,

church chairs and on the carpets at the altars,

in campgrounds and at lunch tables.

 

A blended family

merged by pain and memory,

by the act of rejoicing and grieving together.

A mosaic of broken pottery,

together it felt like home.

 

Then it broke again,

bitterness shot through wounded friends,

our hard-work mosaic burst like clay pigeons.

My shotgun blast of truth

was all it took

to ruin the life we knew.

 

And grace happened.

When one by one,

people picked up the shards,

swept up the dust,

and deliberately decided to put their pieces back in the pot.

They were some people, not a lot.

Their actions and their words

could not be unread:

“Life is broken, but no one’s dead.

Here are my pieces,

I’m willing to build again.

I’ll put in the work to

bring you back to life again.

Let’s make another mosaic

different than the last time.

I don’t know whose pieces you’ll have

but you’ll have mine.”

 

And they came back to the table

where brokenness is made whole.

Where shattered lives are mixed

where selfless love is bold.

A family was re-cooped,

where hard life is what we do,

where my life can be rebuilt

where I can be made new.

If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 | Author:

Dear Denver,

I came to you 8 months ago with my life packed into my Toyota Camry.

It was a long drive. 18 hours of leaving my past behind. My own tears surprised me as I drove away from my family standing on the porch of my parent’s house, waving as they watched me go. That’s become our tradition. And I’m always the one on the leaving end.

I was ready for you, for this new, temporary chapter of life. I was excited to leave the past.

But while it was a new town, I wasn’t a new me. I quickly realized that by changing states I was not changing stories. My past was mine to own. My story was mine to tell. My life was mine to live.

So I came to you, and I told you who I am and where I have been. I told it to church members in diners. I told it to distant family members in the mountains. I told it to dates in bars. I told it to neighbors in hot tubs and living rooms. I told my story to you, and you didn’t grimace. You didn’t run away. You listened and you welcomed me.

You let me play on your trails, exploring your mountain peaks and your forests and your waters. You let me make friends in fun restaurants and pubs and venues. You let me sit in peace, overlooking a lake with the mountains beyond, and the setting sun beyond that.

You have given me the space and time to become more myself. And while I’ve always known you would be a temporary dwelling place, you’ve been a good one. Most importantly, you’ve given me an atmosphere to learn how to be at home within myself.

Aside from your horrible drivers, you’ve been nothing but lovely to me. Thank you for being such a big playground for life. Thank you for housing me while I felt at home here. I’ll come back to visit.

-Jo

(I’ll be on the go for the Story Project for all of May and then moving to Wichita, KS Beginning of June)

Favorite Denver/CO things:

– Hiking

  • Mt. Bierstadt
  • Mt. Quandary
  • Colorado Trail
  • Hanging Lake Trail
  • All of the trails during fall
  • Paddle boarding on our lake and slack lining in our “yard”
  • Food/Drink
  • The fries and cocktails at Williams & Graham
  • The atmosphere at Linger
  • The atmosphere at Crema cafe
  • The chocolate at Dietrichs
  • The eggs benedict and the beignets at Lucilles Creole cafe
  • Blackeye coffee
  • Pie and cocktails at the Green Russell
  • Cheap movies at the Century Aurora 16 Theater
  • Eggs benedict and sweet potato pancakes at Snooze Eatery
  • Burgers & Brews deals during MNF at Stoney’s bar & grill
  • Atmosphere & coffee at Roostercat
  • The view from outside the dome on the Capitol building
  • Being at Redrocks/ the view from Redrocks
  • The river in golden
  • Stranahan’s whiskey (both the product and the free tour & tasting)
  • The Denver German Christmas Market on 16th St. mall
  • Even though it’s not just a Denver thing, I discovered & fell in love with it here: Waffle House

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If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015 | Author:

There’s this thing about me (that everyone says, but I don’t believe everyone means it, or knows how to do it): I absolutely love to laugh.I love funny movies. I love funny books. And over the past couple of years, I’ve discovered the joys of stand up comedy. (Did you know you can listen to comedy on Pandora? No? You can thank me for changing your life later. Note: If you like “cleaner” comedy, I’d suggest creating both a “Brian Regan” station and a “Jim Gaffigan” station on there.)

I didn’t know about the whole pandora trick until I was in a very sad, lonely, and broken season of life. And something odd started to happen. As I listened to more comedy, I became funnier. Which was hard for me to see, because it was clear that it was the most broken, least joyful I’d ever been, but I could make people laugh. Soon though, the things I’d say that actually made me laugh, they were about my pain. About the ways my life had gotten derailed. About the crap that most people would say is too serious to laugh about.

And I realized something. As I laughed about it, it lifted the pain a little. As I laughed about it, it took some of the power away. I wrote about this a bit last week about laughing at the real memory of my older sister after she passed away — not the fake, funeral-story version of her. The real her was kind of ridiculous sometimes, and we would laugh at those things in life, why not in death? Because death is too serious.  So when we started to laugh at her memory again, it took some of death’s power away.

Here’s a confession, but don’t stone me before you listen: I love Hitler jokes.  This also came out of this sad and dark season of my life. It started with one Hitler meme I saw on Pinterest that I will include for your enjoyment.

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(Not enjoyable yet? read on.)

I saw this meme around Valentines day, and I laughed and laughed and laughed so hard. To think of Hitler as this twitter pated 6th grade boy was hysterical to me.

And then I realized something — it also takes away the power that his memory holds. The atrocities done at his command. The manipulation. The reign of terror. The blood of millions. The man that did gut-wrenching things that he fought so hard to accomplish and we fought so hard to stop — he becomes a joke. He becomes a human again who we can laugh at. I saw my laughter taking him off of his pedestal of cruelty and inhumanity, and placing him on a ground where he can be laughed at because he looks like a twitter pated 11-year old in this photo. (And now you can judge me. I understand, Hitler jokes are not up everyone’s alley.)

And I resolved to work to get to a place in my life where I could laugh at pain. Not at first, you need to feel it. Pain deserves and demands to be felt. There are real things that must happen because of pain.

But I think it’s a sign of healing, or in some cases, like with Hitler, a forceful display saying “I’m not going to let you have more power over me than you have to.”

That’s what I was saying to death when I started to find the freedom to laugh at the memory of my sister — about that time we snorted pepper to see if it would make us sneeze, and it made out nostrils burn with the fire of a dragon’s breath. Or the way she totally took advantage of my brother and I — borrowing money from our savings accounts to buy her first car, and then saying she’d drive us to go get ice cream if we paid for hers.

That’s what I was saying to the shame of my story when I started to make jokes like “Oh, you you don’t want to talk to awkwardly to that person you kind of know in the grocery store? Just be involved in a scandal. People will avoid you. Problem solved.”  Or laughing with a friend when recounting a first date where a guy was saying his mountain bike got stolen and it was “the worst year ever” and my friend says, “Did you say, wanna bet? Let’s compare.”

That’s what I was saying to the threat of cancer when I found a lump in my breast last year and the on-call doctor with no bedside manner said to me, “Well, you’re young, so it’s probably not cancer. But it might me. Come back in two weeks.” and I said to my friend, “This better not be cancer, because these little things aren’t worth that.”

Last night as I was searching for something to watch on Netflix, I saw that comedian Kevin Hart has a really interesting video on Netflix that I’d never watched before, called “Laugh at my Pain.” I’ve heard most of the bits in that particular stand-up routine online before, but I’d never watched the video.

What caught me off guard, was that the whole first 20 minutes or so is a documentary style piece where Kevin Hart goes back to where he grew up in Philly, and he tells some of his story. In it, his old managers also talk about how he came into stand up comedy, and one of them recalled sitting down with Kevin and being like, “You’re funny. You’re a funny dude. But are you you when you’re up there? Do you leave people know you, or anything about you?”

It was with that admonishment that Kevin started to incorporate some of his real-life, real-story things into his stand up act. His manager remembers that as being where he turned the corner, where he started to really shine. So in the documentary part Kevin tells the viewer about how his mom kicked his dad out when he was four because of his addictions. And he points on the step on the stoop where she made a rule that his dad was never allowed to come past. He tells the real story, he shares the real pain.

And then, the second half of the film (which is explicit, so don’t watch that part if you’re not into explicit comedy), his whole standup routine is about those same things. It’s about what earlier was the painful remembering. And he is able to laugh at it, and invite the audience to laugh at it too. I had heard all the jokes before — but thinking about it in those terms, coming from just watching him tell the real stories, I have never enjoyed his comedy more.

As I said last week, I will teach my children this thought, and tell them to use it on bullies (never the innocent. If they’re the bully, they will be taught a FIRM lesson). But if they’re being bullied, I’ll teach them to laugh at the bully. They may get beat up, but certainly, there is no bully on earth who can stand being laughed at, because they know — it takes their power away.

The bullies in life like death, abuse, illness, divorce, disaster — they do beat us up. But there is some joy in being able to laugh at it. Whether it’s while we’re the kid crumpled in the corner of the school hallway bleeding when we laugh to our friends who rush to our side: “I fall really gracefully, right?” Or whether it’s later on, as we’re healing, when we recount how we swear his fist kind of smelled like Chanel #5 before we blacked out. It might not take the pain away, but it takes the fear and power away.

And there is some humor, because we all have been bullied by something or another. We all have pain. And while it’s important not to minimize pain. It’s also important to not let it rule our lives.


 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
Tuesday, March 03rd, 2015 | Author:

Eleven years. It’s been 11 years since she died. My older sister. Julie.

Two years ago on my birthday, I wrote a column about celebrating even when it’s hard, and I talked about when my sister died, and the birthdays that followed. In the piece, there was this line: “When my older sister passed away, the timing was really terrible.”

We were at dinner — my older brother, my parents, and me — when I read them my column for that month. When I read that line, they all laughed. I laughed a little when I wrote it. Because it’s true, it was horrible timing when she died. As if death ever comes at a good time, but hers was particularly bad timing.

She died 3 days after her 21st birthday. Two months before graduating college. Three months before her one year wedding anniversary (they’d just purchased a cruise for the occasion). And in the first month following her death we had to celebrate my dad’s birthday, her husband’s birthday, my brother’s birthday, and Easter.

But I was glad that my family laughed at the line. Because that’s what I have begun to see as a sign of healing — being able to call things what they are. Being able to say that the timing was horrible and laugh at how irreverent it sounds and how true it is.

It took us several years as a family to know what to do with our “Julie week” of her birthday and anniversary of death. It was hard to talk about her for a long time. We each processed at different paces, and while some of us wanted to remember, it was too hard for the others. And visa versa other times.

Eventually, though, we ended up creating a sort of tradition when we were all living near one another (I’m the one that lives elsewhere some years, like this year). We get together and go out to dinner at the Olive Garden (her favorite — but give her a break, she was a 21-year-old broke college student/piano teacher. The Olive Garden was a splurge to her) and we tell stories to remember her. Not the stories that were told at the funeral. Those were too nice. Too kosher. For a long time, that’s all we or anyone would do — tell the funeral-appropriate stories. The ones where she seems so much more lovely, and so much less like the girl we grew up with and loved indefinitely not even despite, but with her flaws.

It took several years to find the freedom to remember her more accurately. To laugh at her precociousness, her sometimes judgmental nature, her infuriating stubbornness. To admit that amidst her mounds of talent, she was deeply insecure. To remember her harsh exterior that came out quite a bit, not just the softness that existed underneath, too. To remember the way her long red hairs got EVERYWHERE.  It was literally over a year before I stopped finding her hairs woven into the fabric of my clothes from the laundry.

Again, I think it’s a sign of healing, of acceptance, to be able to laugh. I have this theory that I will teach my children if they are ever bullied — laughing at something takes it’s power away.

And I think for our family, when we were able to finally laugh again at the memories of our sister, it was a sign that we were taking power away from grief. We had to let it run its course. That’s not optional. But finally, we found our way to a place where we could remember what was true.

And with that allowance, it is a double edged sword, because remembering the real Julie, means acknowledging the realness that we loved that we don’t have anymore. It means acknowledging the loss, not of some idealized saint, but of our very real sister who we very real-ly loved.

I think we learned this from my mom. We grew up hearing what I would name the “rascal boys stories” — stories of her and her two brothers while they were growing up. But in the stories, there were two brothers, and in life when we were hearing the stories, there was only one brother. We were missing an uncle. He died before I was born. I only know him from the stories.

But the Uncle Randy I know was deeply troubled and deeply loved. He was a lovable little boy. But he had a lot of problems socially and relationally. He got into trouble. He lived a rough life. But in the stories, I could hear him laughing. I could hear him crying. I could see him be tricked by his brother. And blamed for something his sister did. And I could see him yelling. I could see him getting arrested. I could see him dancing at his wedding. I could see him hitchhiking across the country to his new home in New York. And I could sense how much my mom and her family loved this very real, imperfect man.

I’ve never met him, but because of the stories, I know him a little bit. A non-idealized, real version of him. And because of that, he’s never felt like a story character — he’s felt like family. Real-life, living and breathing, blood and guts family.

That’s my hope as we move onward in this life and we carry the loss with us. That we will continue to choose to tell the stories of real-life Julie. That we will remember her as she was, and laugh at what needs to be laughed at and feel for the things that need to be felt. That we will love her in death the way we loved her in life. Real-ly. Because she was real, and our love for her still is. It is good to remember.

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Please keep our family in your thoughts and prayers this week as her birthday is this Wednesday and the anniversary of her death is Saturday. 


 Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon     www.storiesbyJo.com

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below
Tuesday, February 10th, 2015 | Author:

Story continued from last week’s Part 1 post. (read here) 

Some names and identifying circumstances may have been changed for the sake of those involved. (If you don’t read it all, scroll to bottom for the most impactful photo project I’ve ever been a part of.)

Three: Uncovering more debt

In the middle of the week, we had this morning where we worked with a horse for equine therapy. (For the record, I felt like it was B.S. I still do.) You go into a corral with a horse, and based on how you interact with the horse, your group – it’s group therapy – and a couple of therapists kind of pry and make suggestions about “oh, do you ever respond to your wife/husband/father/etc the way you just did to the horse?” I didn’t want to do it because it felt fake, like a fortune teller.  Before I stepped into the ring, I knew they were going to conclude that the horse was John. I was extremely closed off and defensive before I even began.

At the end of my time in the ring, I was facing the horse, petting him with one hand and had my other hand on him as a “boundary hand” as the trainer had shown those who’d gone before me.  You’re supposed to use it when the horse starts to lean into your space — you push him back to show him that this is your space.

So I was petting him, and quickly he started to step toward me. I pushed back with my boundary hand, but before I knew it, someone had grabbed me and yanked me backward. I looked at the trainer and yelled “what the heck!?”

“You were about to be trampled because you wouldn’t let go!” She said in a harsh, scared way. I could tell she was shaken.

But I was pissed because I hadn’t been trying to pet him, I was trying to use my boundary hand to push him back. And I told her so. She was still flustered, and I was defensive and emotionally absent, so she had me be done. I went to the edge of the ring, and there my therapist and group members were waiting, watching.

“Would you be willing to hear some observations your group has?” My therapist, Jim, asked. I didn’t want to hear what they had to say because I already knew it would be B.S. stuff about John… but I said “sure.” So I listened, and that’s exactly what it was. The only response I could feign was: “Thanks. So am I done now?”

Jim said, “Sure,” and as I was turning to leave the ring, he just said, “You sure looked small there standing next to that horse.”

And without missing a beat I said, defensively, “I don’t feel small!” and I threw up my hands in a kind of “bring it’ way like I was going to fight him.

And I’ll never forget this. He said, “Wow, maybe that’s the problem. Let me rephrase. You sure are small next to that horse.”

And then the tears came as the full weight of that realization settled onto me.

It was later that afternoon that I recalled the first time John had later told me he’d first thought, “I’d like to kiss Jo.” I was 16 and we were on a mission trip. I’d remembered this admission a couple months before. But it was in group room 4 in a small town in Tennessee that I realized that the night he thought “I’d like to kiss Jo” was the day before he changed the dynamic of our relationship forever. We’d been talking about love languages, and he’d said he thought mine was touch.

“Yeah, I could see that, but it’s never come out as my top one on the test,” I said. He was convinced it was touch — “that’s what we’re doing the rest of the week!” He said proudly in front of my friends, “guys, we’re gonna help Jo embrace her touch love language.”

I distinctly remember sitting in the middle seat of a front bench seat in the truck, with John on my left driving, and one of my younger guy friends to my right. John grabbed my hand, laced his fingers through mine and instructed my friend to do the same with my right hand. I squirmed incredibly uncomfortable, but everyone in the truck was laughing like it was a funny joke, so I laughed, too. “I’m not going to let go until you like it,” John said. While my friend let go of my hand as soon as we got out of the car, John continued to hold mine tightly as we went into Starbucks, as we drove to the next stop, as we went into a store. And that was it. The beginning of it all. He didn’t stop until I liked it. One night he thought, “I’d like to kiss Jo,” and the next day he changed the entire dynamic of our relationship.

When I realized this, I was livid. It was the first time I could see how clear the answer was to the question I had asked myself over and over through the years “How did this happen? How did I get here?” The multiple therapists from multiple places were right in what they’d told me all along. I could finally see it. I was groomed.

For some reason, I have never realized that I am small. I was 16 when this started with John. And I look at other 16 year old girls now, and I think, there’s no way I would hold them responsible for this. I look at other 23 year old girls and think the same.

But I’ve always carried myself like I was big and strong. I’m sorry to myself, to his family, to everyone that’s been hurt in this that I didn’t recognize my weakness and vulnerability.

As a result, I played the part I did in allowing for this to continue for as long as it did.  I am endlessly sorry for that.

I never thought to run away or yell for help. I thought I was big enough to use my boundary hand and push back.

I was not.

_____________

To admit that I had been taken advantage of, that I was a victim, it deflated me. It made me so angry, and so full of grief to accept this reality. But it wasn’t until I could do that that I began to make significant steps forward in my healing journey, and also in my forgiveness journey.

I went into Onsite feeling like my life had shattered and that I’d lost all of the broken pieces so I had nothing to rebuild with. I came out of Onsite feeling like I had found enough shards to start rebuilding something new.

But first, I had to get angry. Really angry. And distrusting. As I was healing and moving forward in many ways, I was also uncovering more and more of the ways that John had hurt me, duped me, manipulated me over the years, and the more I demonized him. This commenced months of nightmares with him as the star villain.

Come the fall of that year, people started to ask me if I had forgiven him. “No,” I’d always reply bluntly. I was not willing to be challenged on the matter. I’d forgive the mother-fucker on my time frame. Not theirs. And I refused to play the “Ok, I forgive him, Oh wait I’m so hurt and mad again, ok I forgive him again” dance for ages. I would be firm in my un-forgiveness until I was certain that it had arrived, that I had summited that large mountain I’d decided to climb.

Then came the “You need to forgive him,” comments once in a while, “if not for him, than for yourself,” which I respected, but still disagreed with. “I’m not ready,” remained my answer.

I’d talked with God a lot over the course of the year, especially as I was alone much of the year. God and I, we have really honest conversations. I talk to Him like I talk to anyone. And I’d asked Him to be gentle with me, to help me, but that ultimately, I knew I’d need to forgive John at some point, but that I just wasn’t ready.

But one day in October (10 months after confession sunday), I was out running and I had thought about seeing if one of my friends wanted to hang out when I came into town the next afternoon, which led to me thinking, “Wait, maybe she’s busy because of helping with the youth group.”

Which led to, “Wait, does she even help with the youth group any more?”

Which was a thought that hit me like an arrow to the chest. I used to be the pastor of that middle school youth group and I didn’t even know if one of my old best friends helped there any more. I sat down right on the paved path and hung my head. “This is so hard, God,” I breathed heavily.

And then it hit me out of nowhere: “I bet John doesn’t know what’s going on in the youth group either.” And that thought broke my heart for him. I’d been demonizing him and hating him for months, and out of nowhere I had this pang of sadness for him and his probable disconnectedness from the youth group he’d pastored for a decade. After a moment, I realized that I was sad for him, and I brushed the thought away, and looked up to the sky, and thought, “God. Stop it. Step back. I’m not ready for this.”

But it was too late, with that one surprise moment, I felt my heart start to soften for him as a human again.

And then, two days before Christmas, he wrote me a letter that absolutely ruined me. It opened up new chasms of grief that I didn’t even know were there. For a man who had only ever written me one Christmas card, and one sticky note in the 12 years of knowing him, I received an 8-page typed letter.

And it said everything that I had written in my version of the letter I’d written through tears at Onsite — the letter I had accepted that I’d never receive.

To be completely honest, when I first read through it it both pained me and outraged me. I won’t share all the details of why, or what all it entailed. But I was bitter and ready to spew my pain back at him.

I sat down on Christmas eve for a couple hours with the intention of trying to just get down my scattered thoughts onto a page to organize later into a letter. But what emerged was a long, unrelenting letter. Along with apologizing and asking for forgiveness for all of the things, he had extended an offer to give a window into my life those days. I was not going to spare him the details, because my life was still very dark, very lonely, very muddled by the fuckedupness, even a year after confession sunday.

“I’m hesitant to write to you for many reasons. 1. I don’t forgive you…” I began.

And I went off on him in bitterness at first. But what ended up coming out of me was sharing what I’ve shared here: what happened at Onsite. How I first found myself mad at him, hating him. How I first realized and admitted that I’d been taken advantage of. And what I’d learned about forgiveness, and the way we’re prone to want to do it too quickly, without adding up the debt we’re canceling.

And in the process of writing all of that out, I found my heart softening in mounds toward a man I had once considered family. Once I had gotten to the end, I let it sit for a few more days.

Then Sunday, January 5, 2014 after church one day short of the exact one year mark from confession Sunday, I sat at a Starbucks in Rocklin, California, and I added an addendum to the letter:

And true forgiveness has to involve adding up the debt so that we can know what we’re agreeing to cancel.

This past year I’ve been becoming more and more aware of the debt of pain you’ve cost me.  And as new parts have been uncovered, I’ve added it to the ledger. I have been consistently forgiving you for new parts, but discovering others.

With this letter, though, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of the debt out onto the ledger.  And I’ve found forgiveness for you for the things I’ve listed here.  I don’t trust you. And forgiveness doesn’t erase the pain or the cost in my life. But it means I’m releasing the fact that you owe me anything for them.

I am hesitant to say I forgive you, because I am certain I will continue to discover new parts of your debt.  As I am in relationships with men and sorting through my dysfunctions and insecurities. In my marriage as I struggle with trust. In the church if I ever get to return to ministry.  I’m sure I will continue to stumble upon undiscovered corners of pain for years to come.

And knowing this is the case, this was the reason I planned to write to you telling you that I forgive you for the things so far, and I’ll continue to work on forgiving you as I know more in the future.

But as I sat there writing it, I just had a wave wash over me, a wave of visions of years from now, all the times I’ll stumble on new parts of the debt, and I realized I didn’t want to think of him in those times. I didn’t want him to owe me for those times. I was ready to move on and accept whatever pain I find later without any ties to him. And just like that, while the barista was walking by with the dust pan to go clean the bathroom, I let go. I forgave him for it all. Because that’s how forgiveness happens in my experience — in the un-monumental moments in the midst of real life. The decision may happen at an altar in a church service, or in front of the perpetrator. But the realization that forgiveness has come — that, wow, I’m finally at the top of this large mountain I’ve been climbing — it comes when it comes, it comes when its ready.

I forgive you for any future pain and discomfort or closed doors or lost relationships. I release you.

And for the first time, I think I know exactly the weight of those words, and I know that I mean them.

___

As I was telling a friend about the letter, and about the way I’d found myself unexpectedly forgiving John before I thought I’d be ready, I heard myself say this: “I’d been hating him for a long time, but I felt God start to soften me before I wanted him to. It’s been a year, and I’ve come full circle. Which is weird, because I thought I was just moving forward.”

I think forgiveness, like grief, is a path, a journey with many stages, and we have to walk them all, even if where we end up — at forgiveness — is where we tried to start. We have to walk through it all. We have to not simply decide to climb the mountain, we have to climb the whole damn thing.

*I asked a photographer friend of mine to take photos of me last year while I read parts of my letter to John aloud. Since I couldn’t deliver the letter in person, I wanted something to help me remember what it was like to be in that space – something other than a letter in the mail to capture the moments I found myself at the sad mountain summit where I both forgave and said goodbye.

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Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

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