A Different Kind of Empty
When it's "too soon," the emptiness feels "out-of-season," but even in such a season, there's a story that begs to be told
One of the things I love about this column is that I get to hear and disseminate and retell real-life stories.
It is one of the highest honors of what I do, because each story is a treasure. Each person is precious. There is purpose in every experience.
Telling a story allows others to partake, to be a part of someone’s life experience, to gain wisdom and to feel compassion for what a person has gone through.
Being part of the story reminds us of our own humanity.
Part of my “training ground” for “hearing” and “telling” came from years of meeting people and listening to them — asking questions, investing in the moment and thereby, in the person.
This happened around dinner tables, during breaks at training sessions and conferences, in support groups, and in my work with various church
and para-church ministries — sitting on a folding chair at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or on the front porch swing of someone whose house was being repaired.
Sometimes the most important “ministry” happens when we simply listen to someone’s story.
One of the most heart wrenching tales I ever heard was shared with me on a Friday night in downtown Canton at a long-since-closed coffee-house called Jacob’s Well. The storyteller was a woman I will call Micah.
Micah was in her mid-20s, and I was only a few years older. After the band I was singing with finished playing, she invited me to sit at her table. We entered into small talk.
I lived on a farm. Micah lived in the city, just a few blocks away. We were both mothers, and our kids were about the same age.
In those days, I pretty much only stepped foot downtown for “ministry”
purposes (oh, what I was missing! The city now feels like a second home because of the arts and community organizations I have come to love!).
We hailed from two different worlds, Micah and I; nevertheless, we connected immediately.
We discovered that we had many of the same longings and dreams and concerns as young women and mothers.
But her dreams had been shattered. There was no way to retrieve them. Life would never be what she had hoped it would be. Her life was what it was, partly by circumstance. Partly by choices. Partly from the consequences of caving to longings that felt overwhelming.
The courts had ordered that Micah’s children be removed from her custody.
Before that night, if I’d ever heard about someone losing their children, my gut response was, “Well, they shouldn’t have done what they did,” or “The kids are better off without that deadbeat!”
That sounds harsh, and it was.
When you hear someone’s story, it changes everything.
I now understand that even when a mother knows she hasn’t made the greatest choices (perhaps especially when she knows her responsibility in a situation), the pain of losing custody or time with one’s child is unbearable.
Micah’s story solidified that for me.
She told me of her desperation. Trying to work and support her family. Living in poverty. Falling in love and moving in with someone who turned out to be a drug addict. Still loving him, not wanting to be without him. Being court ordered to move, to keep her children away from him but having nowhere to go.
She lost her babies in the process of “choosing” to stay.
Through her tears, she spoke of how much she missed her children. How much she wanted them back. She feared she might never see them again.
I held her hand as she spoke; I couldn’t imagine having to face a life — or even a season — without my little ones. Though I could not possibly know true empathy, my heart was breaking for her. I listened compassionately and cried along with her.
I tried to keep in contact with Micah, but it was difficult. Her phone got canceled. I didn’t know how to find her. We lost touch. I never heard how things turned out.
But her story and her spirit stayed with me.
Knowing her changed the way I listen to stories.
The world has enough people who are eager to unearth the facts of who is to blame and dig up a stone in the process.
Casting stones never solved anything.
This week, as I prepared to write my column and move on from the “Empty Nest” theme, I felt Micah’s story needling at me, there in the back of my brain. Just under the surface of my beating heart.
I knew I had missed something in the series. I had to address it.
What about those whose nests feel prematurely “empty?" Those whose nests are empty Monday through Thursday, or every other weekend? What about those who only get to see their children once every few weeks? Or for a few hours a week of “supervised visitation?" Or for three months in the summer, when their children arrive from out of state?
These are the stories I feel compelled to tell.
Perhaps your children are not with you physically, or maybe they are estranged because of perceived blame over a separation or divorce. Maybe you get to be with them but there’s emotional distance. You are still your child’s parent, yet you are struggling to make sense of how to live that out in the face of changes. How do you cope?
If your children have left your nest “out of season,” please consider sharing (even anonymously, like last week) your thoughts, struggles and positive coping mechanisms with “Growth Chart” readers.
If this is your story, someone needs to hear how you survived — how you are surviving.
When we help others, we too find healing.
I love that I met Micah in a place named after the spot where Jesus met another woman who had made less-than-perfect choices. A place where people had cast stones (the woman was at the well alone — at a time of day when she wouldn’t run in to others) but where a man asked her to draw water. This man’s desire was to give her water that would never run dry, so she would not thirst.
Later, she said that this man— Jesus — knew her whole story without ever having to tell him. Her response to the encounter? She hurried back to town. She told others.
She shared her story.
Message me. Let’s talk.