Thursday, April 12, 2018

This is Not the End: One Woman’s Tale of Surviving—and Thriving—After an Unexpected Loss

I have recently read Sarah Burke’s book, This is Not the End: Reflections on Finding Hope During the End of the Marriage. While, as the title suggests, this book is most directly relevant to those who have experienced the loss of a marriage, I think her writing will speak to anyone who has experienced an unexpected loss of any sort.  It certainly spoke to someone like me, who has never lost a marriage—but has lost a child.  As Sarah says in the book: “Loss is loss is loss; the only difference is there’s yours there’s mine.”  

In the book, Sarah shares her experience of losing her marriage to her high-school sweetheart and “best friend” unexpectedly after over 13 years together, which thrust her into an unchosen journey on which she rediscovered the “story of her”, and found hope—and God—along the way, sometimes in surprising places.  She describes how she grieved her loss, began pick up the pieces of her shattered dreams, and create new ones, as she moved forward into a new day with brand new hopeful possibilities.  Throughout the book, Sarah mixes in anecdotes from her own personal story with practical wisdom applicable, not just to loss of marriage, but to all types of loss. For example, when we experience loss, she encourages us to shift from asking the unanswerable question of, why, to for what purpose

One theme that Sarah drives home throughout the book is the idea of choosing to live well. Almost from the moment a tragedy happens, we have a choice as to how we respond.  In fact, Sarah describes it as making a series of positive choices in a “million tiny moments” that make up our life story—i.e., choosing almost minute-by-minute to become better instead of bitter.  From early on, she had a sense that “this would not be the end of her", and she set about making it a reality through self-care practices like exercise, journaling, prayer, and creating beauty.  She also explains how her children have been a huge motivating factor in her making good choices.  (I recall feeling similar after our loss; as much as we grieved and felt like we wanted to curl up and die when our daughter died, we had two other children that needed us to keep living.)  

One specific choice that Sarah made in the book that impressed me was to share only the details of her personal experience that we the reader needed to know to help us understand her situation and form connections to our own circumstances.  In doing so, I think she showed immense respect for her ex-husband. She had every reason choose the bitter path; she could have easily portrayed him as the sole villain of this story.  But over time she came to realize that it takes two to make a marriage—and it takes two to break one.  She chose what I consider to be the better path, keeping details about why the marriage ended more general, and focusing mostly on her own experience of the events that transpired.   I think others will benefit from that choice.  By the end, she seems even able to look back on the positive memories of their time together and feel grateful—no matter how her husband chose to reinterpret them.

Surely, as Sarah makes clear in her book, we will all have moments when we succumb to bitterness, for there is no denying the very real pain felt over such a tragic loss.  We need space to shed tears for what we have lost and to let ourselves feel whatever we feel.  We need people with whom we can be real.  However, hopefully our overall life trajectory is toward the better.  Sarah explains how she had to risk being vulnerable to others, and it was not necessarily easy, but it was only by doing so that she discovered God's grace through the kindness and compassion of others, and found she was "not the only one".  While her journey of grief was indeed unique and only she could walk it, there were others who have walked similar paths, and they could serve as guides if she allowed them to do so.  

The chapters I liked most come toward the end of the book, where Sarah discusses what here experience has taught her about Grief (Chapter 9) and Forgiving When You Can’t Forget (Chapter 10). Sadness, she reminds us, has its place in life, right alongside joy. Sorrow and love were comingled on the brow of the suffering Jesus, and the boundary between them in life can sometimes be very thin.  (This was certainly true of my personal experience of sudden loss.)   We must learn to welcome both into our lives—even when we didn’t invite the sadness. 

Regarding forgiveness, Sarah thought she had to forgive before healing could start.  Her experience taught her that it is “an inextricable part of the whole process of healing”.  Ultimately it is God who forgives, and forgiving sets the forgiver free from the burden of anger, hatred, and resentment, just as much as it frees the person forgiven of the burden of their sin against the forgiver.

Then comes what might be the most powerful chapter to me: No More Sacred Cows (Chapter 11). In this chapter, Sarah shares some very practical advice to married couples, that she has clearly learned via the “school of hard knocks”.  She explains how she naively assumed her marriage was a sacred cow.  Other marriages might struggle and fail, but hers would be different. After all, she and her husband were “best friends”, so they would surely rise above any challenges they encountered together.  Sadly, she had to find out the hard way that she was wrong.  Her partner changed, but she didn’t notice.  They were no longer on the same page.  Frankly, it seems to me that he was in a different book!  But by the time she figured that out, it was too late to save her marriage.  She reflects on the “red flags” she either didn’t notice or chose to ignore.  Her rumination provides a font of wisdom for those fortunate to be happily married.  In short, she reminds us to cherish our marriage and never take it for granted.  Both partners must be willing to fight for it each day.  (In her case, her husband ceased to be willing to fight for their marriage.)  We should find reasons to celebrate one another.   We also need to trust our instincts when something is “not right”, and have the courage to have the difficult conversation with our spouse, as opposed to staying quiet in an effort to “keep the peace”. 

Sarah’s tale reminds us that loss is a unique journey while at the same time it is a universal experience.  

There were moments where I read a passage describing some aspect of Sarah’s experience of losing a marriage and it resonated with my own experience of losing a child—as some of my many margin notes can attest. Overall I enjoyed reading This is Not the End…, and I recommend it to any who want to learn to live well after an unexpected loss.  I hope that it speaks to in your unique tale of loss as it did to me in mine.

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