When I was in seventh grade, my father put our family of five on a runabout 27 foot sloop with the intent of sailing between the Caribbean Islands of St. Barts and St. Eustatius, a distance of 26 nautical miles. Locals warned him of a severe impending storm but my father, a licensed sailing captain, was confident in his abilities. After gathering the necessary provisions, we left the harbor and headed out to the open sea.
My mother acted as crew, jumping to complete my father’s directions to tighten the winch, raise or lower the sail, let out this or that line. The first several hours passed uneventfully, even boringly for my brother, sister and me as we lost sight of land and our small boat proceeded southeast, a tiny white dot beneath an endless indigo sky. We had no working radio, relying on the boat’s navigational compass to direct our course. A steady wind prevailed so we were making good time.
Late in the afternoon vertical thunderheads appeared in the distance. Perhaps we could outrace them? We could not. Within an hour we were enveloped in black clouds, torrential rain, and 15 foot swells that reached to the mast spreaders. Our boat bucked and rocked as my father braced himself at the helm and fought to keep us from capsizing. At one point, my mother had to grapple her way forward on the pitching deck to untangle a line caught on a cleat near the prow. I huddled next to my small brother, drenched and freezing, paralyzed by terror and the thought that if my mom slipped and fell overboard, we would never find her in the heaving, roiling waves. I believed we were all going to die. I remember vomiting into the seawater that sloshed around my feet as my sister worked to bail the cockpit. No one noticed.
How many miserable hours later did we pass through that petrifying storm? I cannot recall. What I remember is that we did. We reached St. Eustatius, long after dark, dropped anchor, then rowed to a deserted beach in a rubber dinghy. Then, soaked and exhausted, we trudged up the dirt road to a small village where we knocked on a guest house door hoping to find a warm, dry place to sleep. The woman who eventually appeared was astonished that anyone had just sailed through such a storm, let alone a family with children. She took us into the kitchen and brought us steaming cups of black tea heaped with sugar. I wrapped my hands around the warmth, grateful to be on land and inside. I fell asleep on a real bed tucked between my sister and my mother. My father and brother slept on cots in an adjacent room.
This incident occurred 50 years ago, but I can still re-live that feeling of terror which accompanies the memory. Our family never talked about what happened. Our father never indicated that putting all of us in mortal danger was an unwise call. My mother never vocalized criticism of his leadership. We simply moved on.
One problem with this way of dealing with a trauma or a grief is that it allows no place for the suffering that attends bad, scary, sad or painful experiences to vent. They are still stuck inside somewhere. They stay in a cage in our memories until we let them out through having our story validated by another. Yes that happened. Yes it was truly, horrifically frightening or awful or sad. As it relates to the sailing story, yes your father did manage to keep you alive but failed in his duty of safekeeping and yes, that contributed to the feeling you have that you were, and are, disposable.
Sometimes we can do a little validation of ourselves for ourselves. For instance, I can create a mental picture in which Adult Me stands next to Child Me, puts an arm around a small shoulder and reassuringly says all the right things. ‘It’s okay to be sad or scared.You are valuable, worth loving, worth protecting and even worth treasuring’. I might even get a boost of strength from an affirmative internal dialogue. Yet the human heart cries out for someone else to do this for us. It is a difficult thing to harvest genuine validation from yourself. We long for another to see into our eyes, bear witness to our truth and offer us compassion or encouragement. To receive what we need requires us to talk about some of our broken places and hard experiences. To give this gift to another requires us to have a safe ear and understanding heart upon which what is shared can gently land. In both roles we may be called upon to go over the same terrain again and again. Skin wounds don’t heal overnight, neither do emotional wounds. Daily and consistent care provides the environment for healing.
Do you have the courage to ask for compassion and encouragement from another? Can you be that haven of compassion and encouragement if someone asks for it from you?
My desire is that each of us learns to both give and receive, growing into all that we can be through deliberate and patient practice.
I have been where you are. It was a lonely and grief filled place. As a result, I have made it my mission to help other widows by suggesting that taking action to honor your husband’s legacy will enable you to set goals for yourself so you can begin to embrace life again. What do you mean, you may ask.