In August 2001, three months after Rob and I met, we were mugged at gunpoint in an apartment complex parking lot in Dallas. We’d driven in that evening, the last leg of our trip moving me from New Hampshire to graduate school in Texas. Before we met my new roommates, Rob and I ran down the street to a burger joint to grab a bite to eat. When we returned to my gated apartment complex, we parked in the darkness and paused a moment gathering our things. As we stepped out of the car, two men blocked our exit. One pressed a gun into Rob’s side. The other backed me into the passenger seat.
Almost 20 years later, I still don’t tell the whole story to everyone I meet. The only one who knows all the details has now gone to his grave. I struggled for many years with the effects of post traumatic stress, as my brain attempted to process the events of that night. For a long time, I lived like a war veteran — facing toward doors at restaurants, sitting only in the aisle seat, avoiding closed environments that were hard to exit. I’ve been through three rounds of cognitive behavioral therapy to help my brain to heal. That hot August night destroyed my sense of security; I move about with an altered perspective now.
I can think and talk about that night without it giving me nightmares anymore. I no longer see the faces of the men in crowds. Even if I don’t like it, I can be in closed spaces — the middle of a crowded room or a tiny elevator. I can remind myself, “I am uncomfortable, but I am safe.” The memory of that night has grown fuzzy as the years wind on, even though the trauma remains imprinted on my brain cells. But even if some of the memories become hazy, I will never ever forget the sound of Rob’s voice as I stood beside him at a convenience store payphone the next morning. Rob called my father. Was it collect? I don’t remember. He explained what had happened and told my father we were okay. As I listened to Rob’s reassuring, measured voice, I knew in that moment I wanted to be with him forever.
Rob never knew the girl who did crazy, irresponsible things. He never knew the me who walked through city streets at night without looking behind her back. The me whose business travel took her around the country multiple times a week without a second thought about small airplane spaces. The me who went to bed without checking all of the door locks twice. We met. We were mugged. We were married. Our mutual trauma bonded us together. For the next 17 years, Rob was the man who brought me a sense of security, my beloved who took care of me in the deep ways my heart needed most.
Since Rob’s death, I’ve been told (among other awkward things) that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I assume they’re talking about how if the shock and sorrow of Rob’s death hasn’t killed me yet, I’m probably going to be okay. Maybe a vague strength will rise out of this trauma and turn me into some sort of dark superhero widow. I respectfully disagree. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you can turn you into a neurotic mess. I know that storyline. I’ve lived it.
Rob’s sudden death has been its own form of trauma, and often my brain still struggles to grasp the enormity of that loss. There have been many moments since Rob died where life has required me to use the tools I learned in my rounds of post-traumatic therapy. I regularly pull out my memorized verses, do my deep breathing, and engage in my cognitive behavioral activities. I wasn’t a particularly brave person before Rob died, but I’ve got a whole belt of tools to help me face my fears now. It feels an irony that my life with Rob prepared me for my life without him.
Having lived through two traumas, I’ll tell you with full assurance, that what doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. It may make you grow a thicker shell, get tougher. But honestly, that’s not who I want to be. Instead, I hope that what hasn’t killed me makes me softer, gentler, more compassionate, more accepting of weakness, more willing to sit with contradiction and mystery. I hope the tender and wounded places in my life will bear fruit not of inner fortitude but of the fruits of Spirit. Someday, when I look back at these places where tragedy has darkened my path, I hope I’ll be able to say instead that nothing was wasted. That darkness didn’t win, not because of my strength but entirely because of Jesus’ grace.
6 thoughts on “What Doesn’t Kill You”
Your words are like balm to my grieving heart. My incredible, sweet anchor husband had a massive stroke just before Christmas. We almost lost him and weeks were spent in hospitals to fight for his life. He lived and when he was cognitive, his left side paralysis is pronounced. We just got into a rehab facility when Covid-19 hit the world hard and we are not moving quickly towards quarantine of the hospital. I still safely see him every day but that is coming to a close (rightly so) and I am having to surrender and trust God for guidance all the way. Praying for wisdom as we decide to stay at the facility or bring him home (we would need a lot of equipment and medication). I hear your heart on missing Rob – he sounds like the anchor of your family. There are never any easy answers, the grief is overwhelming at times and yet the peace is threaded through and my heart is stayed on Him. My prayers are with you and I concur – it is not my strength but Jesus’ – clinging to the hem of His garment.
Dear Clarissa, What an incredibly powerful story this is, especially having read “The only Safe Place To Be” previously. I’m so grateful for your willingness to share your heart (in the midst of your current “journey”), the wisdom and faith our Lord has given you, and your gift of writing ✍️. When I read the “Safe Place,” I sensed something very special about you. May God bless you and each of your children 🙏. In His Love, Margot Downey
Thank you for your kind words, Margot. I’m so grateful that you shared them with me!
Dear Clarissa, Once again you have brought me to tears. Tom was my security always. As long as he was part of any adventure I got us into, I knew that it would be OK. I remember about a month before we left the ship, Tom wrapping himself around me as he did each night before we fell asleep, and me saying, “This is what makes my world alright, secure, good, having you next to me”. Now, having to find that security in Jesus, where I suppose it should have been all along, is part of this season. Thank you for writing.
Crying my eyes out. They should be paying you for THIS!! But you’re churning this stuff out for free every day!!!!!!!
Thanks for showing me again more of what I want to grow to be.
Beautifully spoken Clarissa. I too feel that through the grief and losses I’ve experienced in life have made me a more empathetic, compassionate and approachable person. I’m ok with that. 💕 Thank you for sharing your experiences and heart with us. 💕