The long-awaited day is finally here: It is New Year’s Eve, and tomorrow will be the first day of 2012.

I think it goes without saying, but 2011 was a year I do not ever want to come close to repeating. By far it was the most difficult and challenging year of my life, one in which I endured more loss, sadness and unbearable grief than I ever thought I could. But I don’t think I can say the year was a total wash; there were things like weddings:

and babies:

and joyful memories of my mom:

and despite how painful the year was, it doesn’t mean those happy things didn’t happen.

I am not one who attempts to derive meaning from suffering by focusing on the lessons my sadness is “teaching” me; in fact, one of my pet peeves is this dumb assumption that suffering exists merely so that we can support one another through it (i.e. “I know now that I’m going through infertility so that I can encourage other couples going through infertility!” — really??). Suffering exists because we live in a fallen, broken world. But God uses all things — all things — for our good and His glory, and 2011 has been no exception. So again, the year wasn’t a total wash, because He did use my suffering as a means to allow me to grow in wisdom. I can’t in my limited human insight say it was worth it (because I had no choice in the matter and given the choice, I obviously wouldn’t go through it all again), but I did manage wrench a few lessons out of all of this. Here is some of what 2011 has taught me.

  • Basing your happiness on external circumstances is an easy thing to do, but it doesn’t produce the kind of happiness that will sustain you when those desirable circumstances vanish. This is something I have struggled with in the past — this feeling that when x is perfect, my life will be complete. When I have a better job. When I’m married. When I’m pregnant. When the weather clears up. When I have those cute boots. When I have more money. Along those same lines, I often found myself hanging my happiness on external circumstances and the fact that ostensibly I had everything I wanted — a good job, a loving marriage, a supportive family — but could I sustain that kind of happiness after two miscarriages? Weight gain that was outside my control? What about after my worst fear was realized and my mother passed away?  One thing I’m learning, thanks to 2011, is that the kind of happiness that relies merely on the external is cheap and false. I strive now not for this superficial “happy” feeling, but rather for the peace that passes understanding.
  • Endorphins are a powerful healer. I sometimes feel like an exercise evangelist, but it’s for good reason! The number one thing that helped me to feel better last winter and spring was exercise. I saw a counselor a few times back in February and March, and one of her first recommendations was that I get out and move again — and it made a huge, huge difference. (A healthy pregnancy isn’t the only reason I do so much yoga these days.)
  • You know what else heals? Distraction. There’s nothing wrong — and maybe a lot of things right — about escaping from a terrible situation by rereading your favorite book or watching a string of cheesy romantic comedies. Distracting yourself from grief is not at all the same thing as ignoring it.
  • Sometimes, just breathing needs to be your highest priority. Despite the fact that endorphins heal, and distraction helps, and God redeems, sometimes just breathing will be all you can manage. In those times, do just that. Trust that the rest will come at the right time. (It’s also worth mentioning that it’s good to be able to distinguish these times from times when you just don’t feel like getting up off the couch, which brings me to my next point …)
  • Don’t eat too many Oreos, and don’t spend too long on the couch, no matter how awful you feel. One peculiar challenge with which I was faced this year was knowing when to come out of survival mode. There comes an important moment in the grief process when self-medicating through cookies and sleep becomes less therapeutic than healing your spirit with nutritious food, exercise, and productivity. It’s not the most pleasant moment in the grief process because it can feel like you’re callously “moving on”, but — “moving on” doesn’t always exist. Sometimes, after losses of this magnitude, what you are actually doing is rebuilding a new life out of the pieces your loss left behind.
  • Spend time with your family. They are irreplaceable.
  • Keep fresh flowers in the house at all times, and look for more reasons to drink champagne. No further comments.
  • God does give us things we can’t handle. Was it Mother Teresa who first promoted that nonsense? What I have found is actually the opposite, that we can be overloaded with grief, hurt, and rage that is beyond our human frailty to manage. Relying on my own feeble strength will not get me anywhere; gritting my teeth and gripping the arms of my chair really hard isn’t going to change my circumstances or return to me what was lost. Instead, God carries me through it. In my weakness, He is strong, and trying to “stay strong” in this only sets me up for crushing defeat and the feeling that “hanging in there” is a task that is entirely up to me and for which I am totally unequipped.

    I called on your name, LORD,
       from the depths of the pit.
    You heard my plea: “Do not close your ears
       to my cry for relief.”
    You came near when I called you,
       and you said, “Do not fear.”
    — Lamentations 3:55-57

Of course I wish that I either didn’t need to know these things, or that I could have come upon these lessons through other, much less painful, means. But worse than enduring so much loss would be enduring it only to emerge from it without having changed, without having learned anything — about myself, about the world around me, especially about God. Despite 2011’s best efforts, I have reached December 31 and am still whole, healthy, and at peace, and against all odds, it is well with my soul.

Be still, my soul, when dearest friends depart,
and all is darkened in the vale of tears,
then shalt thou better know His love – His heart,
who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
from his own fullness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed, we shall meet at last.