Honoring Pain: Learning to Build a Memorial


You are building a memorial.

I heard these words echo in my soul last fall. I was frustrated that I kept returning to the same barren wasteland of childhood trauma and there wasn’t yet a flourishing garden replacing it. I was going on year three of taking a good, long, uncomfortable look at the things that had been stolen from my life that I won’t ever get back. I didn’t want to have to keep watching and waiting and being disappointed when the blooms that were supposed to signal the end of pain and the beginning of forgetting didn’t rise out of the ground. I didn’t want to have to keep coming back. More than anything, I was (and am) afraid of being dramatic. Afraid that I’m dragging out the process of healing far too long and spending too much time and energy and money trying to make it all make sense. You are building a memorial. I didn’t know what that meant. And then I remembered summer 2002. 

In the humid trenches of July, my dad, brother and I took a train from Chicago to New York City. I was 9 years old and very aware of the fear that awakened in me ten months before as I watched planes rip two buildings from the sky. We were tourists in a city still very much picking up the pieces of devastating trauma. We visited Ground Zero while we were there. In the middle of a Yankees game and a Cooney Island visit and pictures in front of the Statue of Liberty, we found ourselves standing in the aftermath of a warzone. I don’t remember much about the scene, but I remember that it could not be covered up or denied for what it was. Heaps of rubble still littered on the ground; a piece of land that once housed strong pillars of steel left barren; dozens and dozens of fliers hung up of missing loved ones. September 11th, 2001 was a fresh, gaping wound in the side of New York City and its country and we were at the starting line of learning what it would mean to heal.

I went back to New York City in December 2016, 14 years later. The site of Ground Zero has been transformed. No hint of rubble; no missing people fliers; no barren piece of land. In the place of the two buildings that were stolen from the New York City skyline stands a memorial that honors the people who lost their lives that September. The memorial was well planned—a state of the art piece of architecture that tells the stories of that day cohesively—but it is, above all things, an invitation to grieve. It is a different sort of invitation than that of the wasteland I encountered 14 years before. It is not inevitable trauma that can’t be pushed away and escaped any more than a gaping, bleeding wound in your side can—it is an intentional choice of not forgetting. It is saying, “Hey, we are here and we have healed as much as we can on this side of Heaven. We are stronger and better and more resilient. But instead of choosing to deny the event that impacted all of our lives, we will choose to honor the pain of our city and its people and not move on like it never happened.”

Grief and honor always walk hand in hand, and that is a complexity of life that I often wish wasn’t true. But we feel the weight of this when we lose a loved one; we sense the importance of our tears. We don’t try to escape the pain because we know that the one we lost is worth it and we forge on to honor them. This is the same reason there is not a park or coffee shop or office space where the twin towers used to stand—the city chose to honor loss the best way they knew how, by refusing to forget. They could have decided that it was too hard to keep coming back to the wasteland, but when loss is heavy and wounds are deep enough to leave permanent scarring, apathy is not an option. Creating space to acknowledge and honor the years of pain and healing seems to be the only acceptable choice.

I wonder why it is so hard to do the same with the personal loss we face in our own lives; why we expect our own pain and healing to abide by the timeline we put in place telling us when we need to feel okay by. What if instead of striving for apathy towards our pain we chose to honor the losses in our lives with best way we know how--by refusing to forget?

All throughout the New Testament we are reminded of the wounds that Jesus bore on the cross. One of the reasons I love Easter is because it seems to be the only time the church can universally agree to not water down or skip over pain. On Good Friday we have whole services devoted to sitting in the hard truth that true love and light was sacrificed to the darkness on our behalf. Year after year we sit and remember and grieve. Why? Because it tells the story of God’s faithfulness. It reminds us that there was a cost to us entering into the Kingdom. It carries with it the truth that our victory would be cheapened if we stopped acknowledging that it was bought at a price. The resurrection is only as powerful in our lives as our willingness to accept the reality of the crucifixion.

The same is true for our own stories of loss and redemption. We don’t build memorials because our wounds are still gaping; we build them out of a place of being healed. We don’t mourn the crucifixion of our Savior because we are uncertain about the end of the story; we do it to remember the cost of the resurrection. We honor the pain of our stories so we can remember all the places that Jesus has brought us out of. We do it to remember God’s faithfulness. We do it so we are not tempted to cheapen our own hard won victory. Maybe the most profound thing is that Jesus doesn’t forget our pain, and he certainly doesn’t make light of it. The invitation of Easter to remember what lengths God went to for his people universally is also an invitation to remember what lengths God went to for you and me personally. This is what building memorials does for us—it invites us into remembering.

Whatever pain you are being asked to honor, be it that of relationship loss or saying goodbye to an old city or processing abuse, I hope that you offer yourself a profound amount of grace and permission to build the memorial you need to remember and honor your pain. After all, learning to build our own memorials is the only way that we will ever be able to enter in and help others build theirs.