Inhabiting the heaviness

Once upon a time, I lived in Liberia. For almost five years, actually. It was one of the hardest seasons of my life, but I kept going back, kept choosing to say yes. I felt a burden: for the country, for its beautiful people, for the incredible kids I got to work with, many of whom became daughters and sons of my heart. And then one day, I left. In part because the burden became too heavy for me to bear. But the thing about God-given burdens is that they stay with you. And so these days, I live in the tension of carrying the burden for a people I love while at the same time, not letting it undo me.


Four years ago today, I walked out of a season of being a full-time missionary and aid worker, boarded a plane for the States, and said goodbye to Liberia. Two weeks after being home, I wrote this in an effort to put words to all the things, the faces, the stories and experiences that were eating me up inside.

Four years later, much has changed. But also, a lot hasn’t. I’m still working through a lot of these same issues. And I’m okay with that. Because things that are real, things of substance and weight, things that move you and change you forever–well, I guess they just stick with you for a little while. Some of the issues remain unresolved, some of the questions unanswered, but as Sarah Bessey puts it, “Hurry wounds a questioning soul“, and I don’t want to rush through all this anyway. I’m okay with wrestling, with grieving, with remembering…


Two weeks removed from Liberia, I still feel as if I’m carrying the country with me. Memories rise up at the most random times, and I’m instantly transported back to a different time, a different place, and yet it still seems so very real. A photograph of one of my girls can bring me instantly to tears, and there are a few articles of clothing that I’ve yet to run through the laundry because I want to remember the smell of sticky air and pungent dust, a scent so uniquely Liberian, so heavy that it settles not only in the fibers of your clothing but also your pores, your heart.

Part of me doesn’t know what to do with all of this, with the memories, with its weight that I still carry on my shoulders, with the broad spectrum of emotion that I go through in any given day–any given moment, really.

I shared with someone recently that it feels like I’m wearing a backpack, stuffed full with children’s names and faces, their stories, their dreams. The backpack contains experiences, both good and bad, and all the intricate details of which I’m still working through. It’s filled with worries and fears, with guilt and tears, with triumphs and praises and prayers without words. My backpack is busting at the seams with four and a half years of a life lived elsewhere, and it’s still so close, still too soon, that I just don’t know how to let it go.


So this person challenged me to take a backpack, an actual one–the one I’ve carried through airports and on roadtrips, across oceans and countries–and actually fill it with everything I have that makes me think of, makes me remember Liberia.

And I did it. Pictures of me and the kids went in the backpack. So did letters from the girls, begging me to stay, pouring out their hearts with ink. In went books and gifts, pieces of fabric bought for me as a goodbye from a 19-year old who spent the little money she barely had on the auntie who was leaving her. I filled up the backpack, and I put it on.

And it hardly weighed a thing.

‘How can that be?’ I wondered. So often, it feels so much heavier, a pressing force on my shoulders that makes me want to collapse beneath it.

I thought about all the things I couldn’t put in the backpack: the way Lamie looked when I first saw him, crippled and dirty, sleeping in a garbage pile. The way it feels to have no idea where they put his body. The turning in my stomach when I think about where Lucky is and if we’ll ever see her again. The way I want to give the world to Janet, how I want her every dream to come true. The way bodies look broken and bloody on the road after an accident. The way mothers grieve the loss of their babies. The way I love Mercy so much that it hurts, and how I always felt like she was mine, somehow, and now I don’t have her.

I wrote all those things out and stuck them to a pair of free weights, five pounds a piece. And I cried over them, cried so deeply I felt like I’d never stop. And then I put them in the backpack.


Even with the added weight of ten pounds and countless tears, the backpack was nowhere near as heavy as I felt like it should be.

Which made me realize: sometimes, things hurt us so much that we feel like we’ll never be able to move on from them. But rarely is it as bad as we think it is. Yes, it’s heavy and painful, and yes, maybe we’ll always carry around a piece of it. But all of the mess, all of the questions and tears, brokenness and heavy hearts, are not our lot in life forever. They’re merely a few short chapters in a greater story that is still being told.


Don’t be afraid to sit with the heavy things a while, lovelies. Heaviness can still be holy, in its own way. I cannot help but think of Christ in the garden the eve of his arrest, and his grief, and his tears, and the heaviness that forced him to his knees. The weight of those hard things, those heavy things, reminds us of our humanity, I think. This is who we are; this is what we feel. So be there. Inhabit the heaviness.

And then, when you’re good and ready, let it go.

{Featured photo from Creative Commons}


  • godschick
    April 7, 2013

    Wow. Beautifully written. I am moved. Blessings!

    • elena.teresa.ann
      April 23, 2013

      thanks for you comment! it’s an honor to share. blessings back to you, sweet sister.

  • rhanke
    April 7, 2013

    Elena, you have me wanting to cry with you! Thank you for being you and sharing such heavy hurts so openly with us ♥

    • elena.teresa.ann
      April 23, 2013

      aww, rosie! thank you, lovely. i so appreciate your kindness and encouragement. thanks for always being so supportive as i share – even with the heavy stuff. xo

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