I found an old jewelry box in our storage basement last week. I opened it. It was like stepping back in time. Each necklace, ring, bracelet had been a little witness to my history. Each one was attached to specific people, and places- all of them gone to me now. Three different best friend necklaces, a necklace I got at Machu Picchu on my senior trip, little rings and bracelets from flea markets in Lima, all lying cold and silent for years, as if in a casket of their own.
And as I looked at my old things, instead of taking a sweet trip down memory lane, my heart just ached. I swallowed past the lump in my throat, blinking back the burning sensation in my eyes.
My daughter was watching me. I closed the lid and shoved it back into the cardboard box. “What is that, Mom?” she asked. “Nothing. It’s just an old jewelry box,” I said. “Can I see it?” “No!” I replied a little too harshly.
Later that night I went into her room and found her on her bed pouring over something. The box. I felt instantly angry. “What are you doing with that? I told you not to touch it!” “I just wanted to look at it!” she replied. “No!” I grabbed the box, shoving a tangle of necklaces back inside. “You don’t even use it,” she said, as I turned to walk away. I looked at her. She was at a complete loss as to why I wouldn’t let her play with this old stuff. “Because it hurts,” I thought to myself. “It hurts to look at it. It hurts to see it and remember.” But it wasn’t painful to her. It was just fascinating old jewelry. “Fine,” I said, “but don’t break it.”
I wondered why that still hurt, after all these years. Why did it feel like a fresh wound that she was plunging her little hands into? That is not my only box. I have several. I have tried to decorate the house Peruvian style with things I brought back with me or received as gifts from people who had recently been there. But instead of feeling like sweet memories hanging on the walls, it felt like death- like loss everywhere I looked, connecting me to an ocean of grief that I carry just below the surface. I put all of my memories down in those boxes. They break my heart to look at, but I can’t throw them away. They are precious to me, though they hurt. They hurt because I loved them so deeply, and I lost them all. I don’t know how long it takes for these things to heal, or if they do heal at all in this lifetime. But what I do know is that someday I will have no more boxes. There will be no more loss. I will be home forever with the God who can handle and gently unpack and heal the contents of all of our boxes. What a day that will be…I was going to end this blogpost here, with the hope that someday, in heaven, God will deal with this grief. He will take this pain. But today, He gently showed me that I am wrong, utterly and completely wrong. Putting what hurts in a box and storing it in the basement is not dealing with it. It is just suppressing it. If there is an ocean of grief under the surface, it is not going to go away on its own, or somehow not affect me and my relationships. It does and will continue to affect me. It makes mission conferences one of the most painful weeks for me to get through. Rather than celebrate what God is doing, I either try to avoid it completely, or I weep like I am in despair when I leave each meeting. It is why each goodbye feels like ALL of my cumulative goodbyes all over again. An ocean of grief. It is why I massively overreact when a friend moves away. It is not just the loss of that friend. It is all of the losses that I have not been able to grieve. It is not being there to see our youth leaders have children. It is not seeing Beto and Gina raise theirs. It is missing my “missionary relatives,” who shepherded my life as they grow older in grace. It is being surrounded by strangers on my wedding day. It is saying my marriage vows in front of a room full of people who don’t know me. It’s never hearing the echo of construction hammers through the La Molina Valley. It is never seeing my beautiful sand hills all around me again. It is never standing around after church, eating Dore crackers and drinking warm pop while talking to Rocio and Evelyn. It is never being greeted with a kiss. It is feeling like I am somehow waiting to go home again, even while siting in my own house surrounded by my kids.
And boxing it all up is not helping. Ironically, the more boxes I keep making, filled with what hurts, the more like the past my present becomes. Living out of boxes. Surrounded by boxes. Never fully unpacking. Never staying. Always guarding my heart. Never letting people all the way in.
But I am wrong. I have to let God help me to begin to unpack. I need to get it out. I need to name it and cry. And I need to set out the pieces of my beautiful life, all of it. I wasn’t born at 19 years old. I have a longer history than that. One filled with the smell of garlic in the morning air, and the sound of cooing pigeons. I am going to honor my whole life. All of my days. Not just the ones that don’t hurt, because honestly, I am so sick of boxes. And I’m pretty sure that God will help me navigate that ocean of grief, because He said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with You, and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you…” He has been faithful to lead His people through waters before. He will be faithful again.