You’ll be in the club whether you want to or not. At some point in our lives we all get booted into a group we want nothing to do with. Your protest might sound like, “The last thing I want to do is go to a meeting about miscarriage. I don’t want to be a part of that club!” Or, “Desperate House Widows? No thank you! I’m too young for that group.” A therapy group for parents grieving the loss of a child? Please God, NO.
Rarely, does our perfect script for our lives work out the way we want it to. Somewhere along the way we hit a bump, snag or literally fall of the edge. What might be your catastrophe may be another person’s skinned knee. It doesn’t matter what others think about what you are going through—you’re wondering if you can even make it through this awful day.
What you need is a tool kit. A kit that will help you cope with the tough times where you shed a bathtub of tears. A list of encouraging books that will help you through the smothering emotions of helplessness, fury, anger and grief from people who have lived through it themselves. And tools for handling those thoughtless, insipid comments by well-meaning friends.
This is not a kit that anyone wants to buy. (Who wants to bank on disaster?) This is not a kit that will make everything better. But it is a kit that will make the awful just a bit more bearable. It will give you hope. It will comfort you that others have been through that dark hallway with no escape, and lived to sing another day. And maybe it’s a kit you can put together for a friend who is walking through a tough time.
I would tell you how and why I developed this idea, but as I stated earlier, my horrible nightmare might be your skinned knee. “Oh is that all? Well what does she know about grief and suffering?” Or the opposite response; “Why did you endure it for seven years? What sort of sadist are you?” But rest assured, between my experience and the resources I mention, these sages of suffering have endured through these events:
Death of a sibling
Prisoner of war
Suicide of a spouse
Whole family killed in a car accident
Although your suffering may be a different shape or color, your experience of feeling ripped off, frustrated, devastated, hopeless and gutted are ones that others have felt. And survived.
Here are my four essential items for a Tough Times Toolkit.
While it’s true boxed facial tissues you throw away after each use are better for stopping the spread of germs, nothing beats the slobber-absorbing power of a high thread-count hankie. I can sob through a facial tissue in 30 seconds. A strong handkerchief will last far longer. Don’t bother with the itty-bitty lacy kind. Those are only good for teas and weddings. You need a good 12-inch square that might have a touch of embroidery in the corner. Best of all, you can wash it and use it again. No waste! My favorites are second-hand ones I got from my wonderful mother who is no longer with us. When I think about what she went through with these hankies, I feel comforted. Many thrift shops or antique stores have charming ones as well.
2. Frozen peas or corn
You’ll need several of these to rotate. Don’t think of ever cooking them. You’ll be thawing and refreezing them lots. Apply to swollen eyes first thing in the morning upon waking. It will accomplish two things: reduce the swelling from crying your eyes out and wake you up and make you feel alert even if you didn’t sleep well. Label with masking tape and a Sharpie™ “Do NOT eat!” Then rotate as needed. Also great for various boo-boos.
3. Lightly shaded sunglasses
These aren’t really for being out in the sun. They are minimally shaded (darkest at the top of the lens, gradating to clear at the bottom) and are for hiding swollen eyes. You see them on women who have had plastic surgery or who want to hide their age. No matter how much frozen vegetables you apply to your eyes, sometimes you just can’t hide the fact you are not doing well. Combine these with dark eye shadow and people will think you are merely mysterious or Italian.
4. Books books books
Reading someone else’s story about how they went through the dark valley and survived can be enormously uplifting. And it can also fill you with surprising gratitude. When you read others’ accounts of what they suffered it can make you glad that wasn’t your lot. And even if you think, “I’d trade this trial for that one!” Reading other sufferer’s stories can give you new appreciation for their tenacity and hope. You can apply their hard-won lessons to your situation. Here is a picture of my bookshelf where you can see some of my favorites.
These books can be hard copies or eBooks, or audio. But if you want to underline a section and refer back to it at 2 am, I think paper copies are better. Most of these books have a Christian worldview, but some of them are decidedly not. Like Joan Rivers. And I make no apologies. She went through extremely hard times (spousal suicide, bankruptcy) and was refreshingly honest, raw and funny about it. It made me laugh in a sort of macabre way. And I needed a laugh, as well as consolation. Here are some that have helped me:
Elisabeth Elliot– A Path Through Suffering, Be Still My Soul, On Asking God Why. There is a special place in my heart for this woman. Her first husband (a missionary) was speared to death in the jungle while trying to contact a Stone Age tribe. Her second husband died of cancer. Her third husband stuck around. But she knows suffering. And she is incredibly wise. She will unflinchingly give you the truth from the Bible, not cushy words. She has more books than I have listed, but these are my favorites.
Abby Rike– Working It Out. Abby’s newborn son, daughter and husband were all killed in a head-on collision traffic accident. So was the driver of the oncoming car. She chronicles her grief, frustrations and experience as a contestant on the TV show Biggest Loser.
Ann Voskamp– One Thousand Gifts. Ann watched her little sister get killed under the wheels of a delivery truck. Then her mother spent years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Ann talks about how many Christians say “yes” to Jesus, but live the “no!” (Herself included). She is an extremely poetic writer; there are sublime and lovely gifts in here. You will actually learn to become more grateful for what you’ve spent years overlooking.
Jerry Bridges– Trusting God. When it hits the fan, sometimes it’s hard to trust God. Some of us have trust issues already depending on how you were raised, how good or horrible your father was and your own faith journey. This book addresses those issues.
James Dobson– When God Doesn’t Make Sense. When the absolute senseless and horrific happens, it’s hard to find meaning or purpose in it. Many of us, says the author, will struggle over the “bitter barrier.” Will we climb over it? Or sink down and stay bitter with God. This books helps you climb over.
Joni Eareckson Tada– Joni. Joni became a quadriplegic when she dove into shallow water in the Chesapeake Bay. In her first book, Joni, She chronicles her desire to kill herself, her anger at God, her despair, her answers to prayer (she’s still paralyzed) and finding peace and ultimate purpose for her life. (Take that bestselling “Me Before You!”) Mesmerizing, raw and fantastic. In her book Heaven, you actually understand more of the purpose and goal of our lives and what we are looking forward to. Exciting when you think about your loved ones that are there already.
Darlene Rose– Evidence Not Seen. Darleen was working as a missionary in Indonesia when WW2 broke out. She became a prisoner of war and was abused and thrown into solitary confinement. She watched friends and children die of disease, malnutrition, and beatings and worked to keep the rats from chewing on the fingers of the children. Her steadfast faith in God and truths discovered in suffering are ones I will never forget. Her audio account is riveting.
Joan Rivers– Bouncing Back, I’ve Survived Everything and So Can You! Joan is raw and honest here about the heartbreak and fury she felt after her husband committed suicide. She then recounts her struggles with bulimia, bankruptcy and relationship problems with her daughter. In between accounts of kicking her desk in fury so hard she broke her toe, and loneliness so overwhelming she almost despairs, she reveals hysterical moments of humor—both dark and lighthearted. I laughed out loud and felt stronger after reading this.
The holiday season is soon upon us and for many this is a tough time of year. Hopefully these tools will give you perspective and a much-need boost to face one more day with courage and faith.
What are your favorite books and tools for tough times?