Valley of Death

Meet Lindsay. I cannot say enough about this beauty. She has much to teach us all. With the unexpected loss of her mother just over a year ago, Lindsay has experienced sorrow in such a way that so many of us have not. As you read her story, you'll find great pain but also great joy. She has tasted extravagant love through devastating tragedy, and Lindsay will be the first to tell you it was not in vain. Also, meet Mama or Teesa as many of us called her. A mama to everyone that knew her, a grandmother to our children who she cared for like her own, and an astonishing woman of God who left a legacy worth imitating. On this Mother's Day weekend, it is my privilege to bring you a tribute in honor of Ms. Teresa Burrell. 

Photo Credit: Director, Krissy Collins; Photographer and Editor, Gabi Brown

Photo Credit: Director, Krissy Collins; Photographer and Editor, Gabi Brown

March 28, 2013 I lived my worst nightmare. The thing I feared most lay in the middle of my living room floor,  lifeless before me. Unexpected tragedy fell in a midnight hour, shifting my identity without a moment's notice and forever changing who I am and the course of my life. 

I lived most of my childhood anxious. My parents divorced when I was 6 years old and a fear of abandonment began to guide my life.  I would hold onto things so tightly, afraid they would slip away from my grasp leaving me alone and neglected. I believed God was real and knew Him as my savior, but my comfort and security came from earthly things…things I could see and feel.

My mother and I developed a unique and close relationship. It was just us. We lived together. Mama was my best friend, my steady, unwavering, unconditional-loving partner in life. Medical conditions arose, which made living a little more difficult for her than the rest of us, but she was strong and joyful, consistently pushing forward, never seeing her own condition above others, always smiling as she toiled. When times got tough, she would burst into songs of praise that radiated from the deepest places within her. She spoke life into others, regardless of who the person was or if she knew them at all…she just believed in people...she saw their potential. This was Mama. It was as second-nature to her as breathing. And oh, did she believe in me.

We had begun preparing to move into a house after living in the same small apartment for over 12 years. It was a dream come true for Mama. On the evening of Thursday, March 28, I cancelled my plans and decided to spend the evening relaxing at home with her. She had not been feeling well the last couple of days and had not been able to eat much, but I made a dinner that she was able to enjoy. "Best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth," she said. (She had a tendency to experience a lot of “best things ever.”) We spent the evening giddy about life, chatting about plans and new seasons. We did a little house work, and I decided to go to bed early. Soon after I fell asleep, I was awakened by Mom gently touching my shoulder. She whispered, "Baby, can you please put the clothes in the dryer when they're done washing?" "Mhmm," I mumbled, eyes shut, immediately falling back to sleep. I awoke around midnight, called to tell a friend happy birthday, and quietly finished up the laundry. Walking out of my bedroom, I noticed the living room lights bright and the television still on. Late nights were not unusual for Mama. She’d often fall asleep on the couch, and I'd give her a nudge and send her off to the bedroom. Tip-toeing into the living room, I started giggling, noticing how hard she was conked out. Making my way over to her side, I touched her arm to wake her and immediately jumped back, fighting for breath. She was cold. I swallowed the panic and tried to wake her. I touched her face...it was cold…I looked closer, her lips blue. I grabbed my cell phone to call for help. Confused, I heard her phone ringing “My Girl” by the Temptations. In panic, I realized that I had dialed her, and it was my ring tone I was hearing. I hung up, and consciously dialed 911. I told the operator as best I could what happened and she instructed me to pull her to the floor and begin CPR. I began with what felt like 10,000 compressions, pleading with the Lord, "Let her live, God. I know You can let her live! I can’t do this. I can’t lose her." I went to perform mouth-to-mouth, breathing breath into the very same body from which I took my first. After hearing the air come back out as though it had been rejected, I knew she was no longer in that body.

I felt a pain like I had never felt before. I was living my worst nightmare, abandoned and alone, staring my worst fear dead in the face. It was there, right there in that moment, cupping my head in my hands with no strength of my own, huddled next to my mother's breathless body that I felt Jesus kneel beside me. The arms that wrapped around the universe, wrapping around me, saying, "She is no longer here. She is where she so longed to be. I have her. But you…you are still here. You still have purpose. And I AM going to be with you always, until your last breath." I fell into that embrace, as if I could physically touch Him. I leaned in, kissed Mama’s cheek and stepped out of the way allowing the EMTs to take their place.

I stood outside as they worked on her. Speaking with the officers, I knew what the report would be. Remembering the significant day that it was I told them, "If you’re going to go, Good Friday is a good one to go on. She is with Jesus now, sir. Better than she ever was here," surprising even myself by my ability to have the faith and knowledge of what was taking place. Then it happened. The EMTs confirmed her passing, and in the midst of my faith, I fell to my knees and let out a wail so great my whole body shook.  

In the days after, I felt as if I was living a dream. This pain...it was deep and sharp and numbing all at once. Easter was the following Sunday, and as I was getting ready for church, I stared long into the mirror in front of me...“How are you living through this?” It was Him and He was true just like He said, "As a mother comforts her child so will I comfort you.”  I gripped that word with every ounce of strength I had left...desperate...longing for it to be enough.

His Spirit continued to steadily comfort the inside of my mangled heart. Carrying me as I limped, day by day by day…He was there. The pain from that night was still there too. I still felt it, I still processed it…missing her, smelling her, dreaming of her. No, I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t want to re-live the hardest moment of my life. I wanted to run…yes, run far away, fleeing the pain, pushing it down. So I did.

"Relationships could be my key," I thought. I'd look for people to fill my loss, convinced it would be the solution to my wounds, relational ointment if you will. If I could just get enough friends, enough time spent, it would be enough...enough to heal this vacancy, this restlessness, my screaming discomfort. I grasped and I reached...but nothing. No one...no one really understood, and nothing they could say or do could lessen my suffering.

Falling on the ground, writhing in pain, begging God to make it go away. "Take it, please!" The excruciating night terrors suffocated me. Racing regrets ran over my mind from that night of what I should have or could have done to save Mama...eating me alive with guilt. I’d wake frantically sobbing and angry…replaying it over and over…haunting my memories. All I wanted was to stop feeling…to never feel again. 

Abandoned. There it is again. "Why God? Why do I still have to be here?" I ached for her. Alone. "Why can I not heal? What can I do to change this? Why is no one else feeling this way too?" 

My story is painful and it is real and I want her back most days, but death...it's inevitable, right? We are just breath, here today and gone tomorrow. Yes, that is the truth, but why can't I get over this...everyone else has.

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but it is His word that stands forever." It is this truth I must cling to. Allowing that scripture to sink in, I knew then that this would be my key and that I would have to begin applying it to the broken places inside of me to find the freedom I longed for. I had felt Him close, but I had refused His healing by not living in the reality of His Word. Do you know what Jesus says? “In this world you will have trouble. BUT take heart! I have overcome the world.” I don’t know how people get through death without Jesus. Not only does He give us hope in the next life, but He offers hope for this life on this Earth.

 It has been a year since Mama moved to Heaven,  and what I can tell you is that His Word is true. I still think of my mom every day... there are still moments that jump out of the blue...and I miss her more than ever. There are holidays that I have to fight and pray to get through and moments where I even miss her endless phone calls about when I’ll be home. But I take comfort in knowing that my hope didn't die with her last breath. No. My hope is in Heaven: the hope that I will see her very soon and that this life will soon be just a memory...just a waning shadow of the real thing. But while I am here I still have purpose...while there's daylight, we still have purpose.  We can look into the dark unknown with great hope, knowing that no matter what it holds, He is good and He is with us. We can look our greatest fears in the face and with great confidence say, “But God!”

As I flip through the pages of my life, it is now I see that God alone is my constant. Even when I ceased to acknowledge His presence, His goodness, His faithfulness--He was there. Before I was Mama’s girl, I was His.  She wanted to protect me from harm and pain, but she couldn’t always. She loved me deeply--the best any mother could--but He has, does, and will love me forever…more than she could muster in her finite heart. Isaiah 43:2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned up; the flames will not set you ablaze.” Verse 5 says, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” It does not matter the troubles we face this side of Heaven...and we will face them...but when we do, it brings me great solace that He is right there with us, longing to enter into those spaces, demonstrating His love and ability to use even our greatest nightmares for our good. When God is with us, death can't hold on to us, fear falls under the weight of faith, and all that remains is quiet confidence in the God who is who He says He is:  Immanuel, God with us...with me...with you.

Photo credit: Photographer, Lindsay Burrell; Edited by, Grant Collins

Photo credit: Photographer, Lindsay Burrell; Edited by, Grant Collins