When Life Is Burning Down

Less than seventy-two hours after my husband told me he didn’t believe in God anymore, and that he also wanted a divorce, I sat on a pew at church and waited for the combined Relief Society/Priesthood class to start. Turns out, the lesson was about celestial – eternal – marriage. I lasted just under three minutes before I picked up my bag, and carefully walked out to my car. It was a violently clear, sunny day in the tropics, my hands burning on the door’s edge while the sky’s breath and heartbreak boiled my tears.

A couple of minutes lost to sobbing, then a shadow, carrying a very hesitant and unsure “Hey… Kellie?” It was a woman freshly moved into the branch, newly called with me as a counselor in Relief Society, who only an hour before had sat astounded as I explained to her and the RS president how my world had crashed in the course of a few sentences just days previously. I didn’t even know her first name.

She crouched down next to my open door, in the glare of the sun and in the sauna humidity of the day, and let me cry. I bawled for a long time. She stayed for all of it. She didn’t say anything. No words, just a quiet, sweating, tissue-passing witness to my grief and desolation.

I pulled myself a little bit together five minutes before Primary and my sons would be released back into the wild. I smiled soggily, disastrously, at her and shrugged. “It was just that topic,” I tried to explain.

“I know,” she said, shrugging herself. “I saw you leave, and didn’t want you to feel alone.”

She texted me that night. Her name was Kim.

I realised later that the chapel had held people I’d known for years, people who knew some or none of my catastrophe – friends and vipers both – but only one person came looking, and she didn’t even know me. Later still I realised it wasn’t because of indifference that my friends didn’t come out, but because they were stalled, immobilised by doubt and indecision.

I’m afraid of the space where you suffer

Where you sit in the smoke and the burn

I can’t handle the choke or the danger

Of my own foolish, inadequate words

I’ll be right outside if you need me

Right outside

The thing is, when our lives are an inferno, someone being outside is useless. It’s like the oft-used and absolutely still-born “Let me know if I can do anything” – so full of potential, while also so tragically lifeless.

What can you do? What can any of us do? Maybe acknowledge that life, this moment, this cruel and carnivorous and devastating inferno is eating someone (ME! YOU!) alive. Recognise it, and maybe do something about THAT. Whatever ‘that’ is.

What can I bring to your fire?

Shall I sing while the roof is coming down

Can I hold you while the flames grow higher

Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now

Can I come close now?

I’ve had all sorts of fires in my life. I’ve wanted and needed different things at all sorts of times during each blaze. I’m incredibly blessed to have two friends who are trained, glorious singers, and there have been periods when I’ve wanted them to sing some gut-wrenching, Valkyrie inspired aria to accompany the disaster, burning out to sea. When I needed to tell someone about how much my Poppy Col loved me, and how loudly he blew his nose. There have been moments when my deepest, most sincerest heart’s wish is for someone to come to my fire hauling a Molotov cocktail or seven. And a Tazer. With a fire-breathing, PMS’ing dragon to add a little extra flourish to the proceedings. One night I wanted someone to venture close, sit beside me, and watch the sparks of my old love letters dancing up to meet the stars.

So we left you to fight your own battle

And you buried your hope with your faith

‘Cause you heard no song of deliverance

There on the nights that followed the wake

We never thought to go with you

Afraid to ask

Months – even years – after my marriage ended, people have approached me to say they wish they’d done things differently. I’ve approached people to apologise for not doing something, anything, even if it was a simple “I have no idea what to say – just I’m so sorry this has happened.” I have to wonder sometimes if with so much perfection and Pinterest enthusiasm and posed Ensign photographs we fetter ourselves from doing a tiny something because it’s not more… well, significant, well-prepared and amazing.

I wasn’t left to fight my own battle in the car-park that day. Kim was nervous, and obviously uncomfortable, yet still settled herself straight down in the middle of the mess regardless. At that moment I had faltering faith, there was no song of deliverance as I realised that cherished covenants were busted, and hope was a charred, broken thing without wings. We know of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego being tossed into the furnace and being protected, unscathed. But life can savagely and enthusiastically remind us that sometimes it’s the innocent, the loved ones, the ordinary are thrown into the fire, and left there.

Lay down our plans

Lay down our sure-fire fix

Grief’s gonna stay a while

There is no cure for this

We watch for return

We speak what we’ve heard

We sit together

In the burn

Kim didn’t offer to fix anything. She gave me no platitudes, no promises, no scriptural recourse or plans. She was Christlike, as when Christ – just minutes from raising Lazarus from death – first mourned with Mary and Martha, recognising their world burning to ash and ruin. While Christ had the miraculous cure for Mary and Martha, we’re not expected to raise anything, phoenix or otherwise. We are simply asked to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those in need of comfort (interestingly enough, which are detailed as being two entirely separate times, not a onetime deal), to bear one another’s burdens that they may be light. We’re not asked or expected of the Lord to take all the pain and flames away – just to lighten the burden, to sit together, in the burn. Please, to be there; in the ash, within the blaze, amid the life burning down.

What can I bring to your fire?

Shall I sing while the roof is coming down

Can I hold you while the flames grow higher

Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now

Can I come close now?

The quoted sections are the lyrics to “Come Close Now,” by Christa Wells, a song which has given me a poetic guide alongside my own determination to not be “right outside”, but to brave the heat, bring something, or even sing, if that’s what someone needs of me.

How have you braved the heat, to be with someone in the fires of life? Has someone done something for you, which reminded you that you were loved, thought of, not forgotten or abandoned in the flames? What do you wish someone would bring to YOUR fire? What shall I sing, while your roof is coming down?

About Kellie

(Blog Team) lives way on the other side of the planet in her native Australia and gives thanks for the internet regularly. She loves books, her boys, panna cotta, collecting words, being a redhead and not putting things in order of importance when listing items. She credits writing at selwynssanity.blogspot.com as a major contributing factor to surviving her life with sanity mostly intact, though her (in)sanity level is subject to change without warning.

27 thoughts on “When Life Is Burning Down

  1. Oh Kellie- that was beautiful. I am so glad you had someone to sit beside you.

    When I was so very sad at the death of my grandmother someone- I still don’t know who- sent me a longed-for cookbook as a gesture of kindness and culinary therapy. I appreciated that rememberance and knowing how I felt caused someone else to feel to. I am trying to pay that act forward as often as oppertunities present themselves. I just wish I could see more of them more clearly and more often.

  2. When I fell and tore a ligament in my ankle, I was in Singapore and far from home, in tears due to the pain, but also the disappointment of re-injuring myself as well as doing it on the first day of my holiday. Crying in the heat and sitting on the ground waiting for someone to fetch transport to the hospital, a Canadian hotel guest (unknown stranger) came out to speak to me. She said she saw me fall, the hotel staff rush to my aid and apologised for not coming over sooner. She gave me a handful of napkins and stayed with me until a van arrived.

    She grabbed my hands, helped me up and together with my husband, helped to carry/support me to the vehicle. I was grimacing with the pain, which made me cry again, and she was so touched by my effort I saw tears in her own eyes. I was so grateful for her encouragement, compassion and care and kept thanking her until the van door closed. I’ve thought of her since, but have no way to tell her just what her presence meant to me. She could easily have remained an observer, but she came and sat with me and it meant the world.

    (I’m tearing up just thinking about it now).

  3. When my parents separated, I would spend an hour or two, at the end of school, hanging out in a classroom. I didn’t want to go home. One of my teachers came and sat with me, evening after evening for a year, and listened to me talk and cry. I’ve often thought since what a huge amount of her time and sympathies I used up – more, perhaps, than I would be able to give to someone else, and certainly more than I had space to realise at the time – but she never made me feel it. And I’ll always be grateful.

    This post was so beautiful I want to mark it and read it, over and over. Thank you so much.

  4. Any service I receive makes me feel loved. I’ve been back in the throes of my chronic skin condition for the last month. During a move. My neighbor came over and did my sink full…no kitchen full…of dishes. Then my visiting teacher messaged me she’d been out of it with morning sickness but could she come help. Made so much difference to me. Transitioning to a new ward after being in a ward for 11 years has been a little harder than I thought. Mainly due to my health issues.

    I hope I’ve been there for others during their hard times.

  5. this was so beautiful and gave me lots to think about. i am one of those people who sees the need and wants to help but is often paralyzed by fear of doing the wrong thing or making the situation awkward for the person suffering. i constantly pray that the spirit will give me strength to overcome my fears and show me the right thing to say or do. i need to remember to err on the side of just being there for someone and not worrying about saying or doing the right thing.

  6. I think that she was the only right person to come out to you because she didn’t know you or your husband. She was a safe person. And you let her stay. If it was a person you’d known for a long time, you may not have felt like you could stay and cry. You may have felt social pressure to wipe the tears off and head back in to the church acting like nothing happened.

    I was the lucky one once. I was the one to have the shoulder to cry on. It was not because I was her visiting teacher. (I wasn’t.) It was because I was the person that she needed then, and I felt truly blessed to be the one she turned to. I was finally able to actually help someone instead of handing them a casserole and feeling lame.

    It was then that I realized that I could let go of a lot of my guilt over my visiting teaching. I would frequently find out second hand that my visiting teachee was in the hospital, again, and I would feel so guilty and like such a rotten VT. But after the experience of being the one that my friend turned to in her grief, I saw things differently. My VTee had called her friends to help her, and that was OK. They were who she needed then. She would call me when I was the one who could help her, but it was OK that I was not at the top of her list. She was still getting her needs met. I feel the same way about my friends vs my visiting teachers. I hope that my visiting teachers would not feel bad about me calling my friends before calling them. You have to have the right person with you in the fire. It has to be the right, safe person for the situation. I don’t think you can make yourself be the right person if you simply are not the one that they want to be that close to at that time. You can still let them know that you care (a card, casserole, or housekeeping, for example), but that you are OK with them keeping their emotional investments with those that are right for them. The hard part is when you aren’t sure if they have anyone that they can turn to and you aren’t sure if you should enter into their personal space or not — if you’re the one they need or not.

  7. This was absolutely beautiful.

    Those lyrics and your words ring so true to me. I can think of specific where someone sat with me times when people stayed on the outside. Those times when friends rushed to me unexpected and unrequested have literally been like much needed manna. It has been interesting to me that more often than not, my friends have been the ones to “sit with me” while my family sat silent.

  8. In all its hurt, this was a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you So much for it! It made me cry. It reminded me of when I was suffering the aftermath of a miscarriage and a member of our bishopric (whose wife had just announced their new pregnancy) made a beeline to me in the foyer and asked how I was doing and expressed his sympathy. That meant so much to me. I know that everyone else who did NOT say anything didn’t say it out of not knowing what to say. This man’s words (and my talking) did not solve any of the awfulness of what I was going through but it helped to not feel so alone.

  9. Gorgeously written and felt, as always, Kel.

    I’ll never forget the perfect response from one man when hearing what had happened in my family–”I’m sorry.” No advice, no platitudes, no “I don’t want to take sides.” Just the simple “I’m sorry.”

    Love you.

  10. This strikes so close to home; the difference is that I took my children and left to be safe. We were the perfect family on the pew. Many stand on the sidelines slack jawed in shock, say they don’t want to get stuck in the middle, or flat out refuse to believe it. I have a few friends who are quietly devoted, so many others couldn’t stand the heat. Those few are the difference between warming myself by the fire and throwing myself in.

    Thank you for sharing this, and the song.

  11. When I made the decision to remove a toxic family member from my immediate life, I got a lot of “it’s a good thing to forgive” mentions from people I’m friends with (as well as from that piece-of-work family member). But my friend Deborah, when I told her what others were saying, her immediate response was “How dare they judge your decision. They have no idea what’s really going on and how dare they think they can say anything.” That has meant more to me than I can say. I was in the middle of my ‘house burning down’ and she was there to help me stay standing while it all fell around my feet. I know the others meant well and were just worried about my spiritual well-being, but it was comforting to know that at least one person knew me and loved me through my hard decisions. :)

    1. Tay, I understand and have gotten some of the same well intentioned but completely missing the mark type advice. I am so glad you had someone there to say the right thing.

  12. So, so brilliant. This is some good writing. The kind that touched me straight to the core.

    The day after one of my most painful breakups, where the sadness was so raw and deep I couldn’t sleep, and hadn’t eaten all day–I had to attend a night class an hour’s drive from my home. As soon as I walked into class my professor looked at me and asked me how I was. Not wanting to make him feel uncomfortable, I responded with the most enthusiastic “Good,” I could muster. He wasn’t fooled, however, and caught my broken gaze as he said “Well, whatever it is, I’m sorry, and I hope it will be okay.” I was so touched by his kindness, I almost broke down then and there. Compassion means so much in a desperate moment of need.

  13. I am sorry that you had to endure so much pain, but WOW have you crafted something gorgeous. “Beauty from ashes” (Isaiah 61:3). Thank you for taking the time to read, think and write this and so many other lovely, thought-provoking things.

  14. My husband came home from church last week and said that as he sat on the stand, an overwhelming realization hit as he looked out at the people in the pews. “Everyone – Everyone! All of them are in the middle of a crisis. It’s all of us. Why do I know so much about all these beautiful people? Knowing just makes it so painful to realize that everyone is struggling to stay above water. All of these people are trying to help everyone else even as they are drowning themselves.”

    It’s so painful to be in the middle of the fire, and I am so so grateful for the people that come sit with me, even as their own lives are burning, too.

    This made me cry, Kel.

  15. Thank you, all, for sharing your own fires and mercy amid the flames moments. I’m grateful and heartened to see that in so many examples – which you have shared – that we are trying to be, have been blessed by, or have been, our own version of Kim.

    I emailed this post to Kim, whom I haven’t been in contact with for a couple of years, to let her know what it meant. Her reply? “Wow, I did that? wow.”

    Wow, indeed. Here’s to all of us getting ready to fireproof our backsides and open our hearts, to help those burning in our lives, within our own life’ and arm’s reach.

  16. Kelli
    Thank you ! This taught me a lesson I will not forget . I will read it again and again.
    I am the guilty one who did not come in the fire to help you. Too busy with my own life and what I think as needs of others around me I miss the cries of those who silently suffer like you. Really suffering.
    I am going to try to reach and go more than I have in the past . I am going to do better. Thank You.

  17. This was beautiful. And that song is so moving. She sounds like and artist I’d like to hear more from. Thank you so much for making me think more deeply about this.

  18. My depression has taken a suicidal turn lately. When I dared say it out loud, two friends immediately came to the bonfire to be with me. They say they need me on the planet. In the darkest moments, that is enough reason to stay.

    Love the song, Kel. And you.

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