How witnessing reopened my heart and helped me heal
By Christy Heitger-Ewing
On a sunny afternoon last spring, I got a call from my dad. His voice was quivering. His tone was somber. He was about to deliver unthinkable news that would turn my bright world dark. My mom, who for months had been battling clinical depression, had taken her own life.
My brain stuttered. My body trembled. My stomach knotted. My knees buckled. How was I supposed to process such a tragedy?
My mom was the one person who understood me completely, accepted me unconditionally, and loved me eternally. She never judged, condemned, mocked, or blamed me. Instead, she laughed with me, cried with me, and hugged me through every trying time in my life. As a result, in the aftermath of her suicide, I felt completely lost. With her love absent from my life, a huge chunk of my heart shriveled up like a rotten piece of fruit.
Tortured and Alone
After Mom died, I noticed an unsettling shift in the way I functioned. Suddenly things that I once found easy were hard, and things that I once found hard seemed impossible. Cooking, cleaning, driving, working, parenting—all were monumental chores.
Even sleep eluded me as I lie awake, my brain stuck on the same haunting Why? and What if? questions that will forever go unanswered. It was as if my devastated heart was determined to make my mind work overtime to try and understand how and why clinical depression had so swiftly stripped all joy and purpose from my mom’s happy life.
In the weeks and months following Mom’s suicide, I felt like a bomb had exploded in my face and I was left to meander aimlessly—destroyed, disoriented, and dismantled—begging for help but repeatedly turned away because my exposed wounds made others twitch, cringe, and scatter. As a result, I felt like a leper quarantined from the general public.
Someone to Talk To
I desperately needed somebody to show me that, although I felt abandoned, I was not alone. Then one day an acquaintance at the gym looked into my bloodshot eyes and said, “I can see you’re in a lot of pain. I want you to know that I’ve been praying for you.”
She paused and then asked with sincerity, “How are you doing?”
Her heartfelt question opened the floodgates. I burst into tears.
“It depends on what second of what day you ask me,” I whimpered.
You know what I appreciated? The fact that this woman didn’t excuse herself from the conversation the moment I started sniffling. She let me cry. She let me grieve. She let me be.
Before she set off for spin class, she reached out for a hug. I clung to her like a frightened child drowning in a tumultuous sea. I desperately needed that hug.
Sharp Tongue and Wounded Heart
Several months later, our family was preparing to go on a vacation to the beach. My sons were ecstatic, though all I could think of was how Mom was supposed to have joined us. Honestly, I would have preferred to stay home and mope. However, given that solitary sulking wasn’t an option, I packed our bags and off we went.
Although the week was emotionally draining, I had to admit that the sun, sand, and sound of my squealing kids were all very healing.
Toward the end of our trip, I was in a gift store when I saw a teenage girl shopping with her mother. (I envied all mother-daughter pairs since half of my pair was gone.) The girl, probably 16 or 17 years old, was bickering with her mom about what size sandals to buy.
The mother suggested her daughter purchase the larger pair, but the blonde-haired girl insisted the smaller size was the right fit. The daughter scowled and said, “You’re only wanting me to get the bigger size so that you can wear them! I know what size fits me!” The mother shook her head. The girl rolled her eyes.
“Mom, you’re such a . . . .”
I can’t even finish the terrible ending to her sentence. It was that horrible.
My eyebrows shot up. It broke my heart to hear this young girl treat her mom with such disrespect. The mother sighed and stepped back a few feet, browsing an adjacent rack of tank tops. Then the girl said, “I’m getting the size I want!”
“How much are they?” the mom asked.
“No,” the mother refused. “That’s too much.”
The girl exhaled sharply and repeated her earlier stabbing comment.
Her cruel words brought tears to my eyes.
A Few Words and a Hug
As the pair continued to squabble, I felt an urgent need to approach the girl. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I felt God pulling me toward her.
You can do this, Christy, I told myself, my heartbeat racing as I crossed the room. Just speak from your heart, and let the chips fall where they may.
“I’m sorry,” I said softly as I reached out and touched the daughter’s shoulder, “But I have to tell you . . .”
A lump formed in the back of my throat as tears trickled down my cheeks.
“My mom died six months ago, and I miss shopping with her so much.”
The girl got very quiet and looked at me with a befuddled expression that was a mixture of pity and surprise.
“I know your mom loves you,” I continued as I tenderly brushed the long bangs out of the girl’s eyes as if she were my own daughter. “In the grand scheme of life, it’s a pair of shoes, you know?”
“Be grateful that you have your mom here to shop with because this time is precious and fleeting.”
Instinctively, I leaned in and gave the girl a hug. To my surprise, she hugged me back.
She never said a word to me. And that’s OK.
Reopening My Heart
As I left the store, my puffy eyes were filled with tears, but for the first time in a long while, my heavy heart was full of hope. Reaching out to this young girl offered me a new perspective on why so few people talked to me about Mom’s death. Perhaps they wanted to say something but were afraid they would say the wrong something.
Then it hit me that I didn’t need to wait for people to approach me. I could do just what I did with a total stranger on vacation. I could open my mouth, open my arms, and reopen my shriveled heart to love.
From now on, I would speak if I were so moved and let the tears fall where they may. That’s how God’s love transforms hearts. That’s how healing happens. That’s how witnessing works.
Christy Heitger-Ewing is a freelance writer in Avon, Indiana.
A Time to Speak
• Remember, God created each of us to share his truth with others.
• Seize opportunities, and speak from the heart.
• Consider what you know of other people’s situations, personalities, and backgrounds, and imagine what it’s like to be them. Tailor your words to their experiences rather than your own.
• Make sure listening, observing, and thoughtful questions are a part of your interactions.
• Don’t expect immediate results. When you witness, you are planting the seed of the Holy Spirit in hopes that it might take root and grow.
• Witnessing doesn’t require a long, drawn-out conversation. Sometimes a simple gesture—like a heartfelt hug—can speak volumes.
• Review the following Bible passages when you need to strengthen your resolve to offer hope and encouragement to others: Deuteronomy 31:6; Isaiah 41:10; Matthew 11:28-30.