On How to Feel

I had a dream the other night. A nightmare, really, in which I received a phone call from Paul that broke my chest wide open, as if my ribs were but papier-mâché, my lungs a dangling diorama.

“Do you know where Elie is?” he asked.

“Tell me you’re kidding,” I said. “Isn’t she with you?”


Dreams seem to be layered—or at least loosely lined—with both truth and memories from our real lives. Even as I slept, my panic centered on this: Paul always has a plan. Then he has a backup.

Our sweet daughter had been with him among thousands at a performance and college reunion of sorts. There were folks I knew from my undergrad years at UVA but others I’d never seen. The event space was large, and people had driven cars, and she could be anywhere by now.

What unraveled me, even as I started to call out to faces I recognized for help, was hopelessness. Asking people to find Eliot felt like turning over dominoes that were all blank on the other side. Folks were faceless, unknowing, even if they wanted to help.

I got to wake up. I got to shower, drink coffee, pray, and try to forget the airy, vanishing reflection of what Hannah Graham’s parents were actually facing. They didn’t get to arise with glued hearts.

I often tell myself I need reason (read: proximity) to grieve. I didn’t know Hannah. Even if we had attended UVA at the same time, she and I might never have crossed paths or gone to the same parties.

Maybe I feel, too, because Chief Longo is a member of the church we attend. I’ve passed him as I’ve checked my kids into children’s church. He looks for our identifying stickers, nods and smiles, and I feel good having him stand guard. But he’s made clear all along that he needs God’s help in Hannah’s case. He needs a miracle.

And I’ve been cautious about connecting my feelings only to motherhood, because certainly you don’t have to be a parent to mourn. I was trying so hard in my conscious mind to see this the “right” way, to feel this the “normal” way, but it took a nightmare for me to realize that somewhere inside, I was thinking about my own baby girl.

I’ve been reading Leslie Jamison, so it’s hard to feel without thinking about what empathy means. Where we draw the borders, how we let some stories in, keep the others out. To be honest, I’m not sure I prayed enough for the families of Alexis Murphy and DaShad Smith. Had I felt as broken for them? Should I have? Had there been more resources poured out in Hannah’s case, and had I, indiscriminately, devoured the newscasts and Facebook posts in order to fuel my own ravenous curiosity?

I don’t know what it was like to follow this case from afar. I know that here, in Charlottesville, we seemed to get breaking news every day. Here, we watched surveillance footage one day and then walked on the downtown mall the next. We drove past buses lined up at John Paul Jones Arena to carry volunteers to bushes and fields and rivers. I both prayed that they’d find the right guy and felt sorry for good guys with dreads who received misguided double-takes. I passed McGrady’s Irish Pub in my minivan and couldn’t help but see Hannah turned away, perhaps disoriented, walking along that black iron fence. I almost expected these places, like the Shell station, to close. It made no sense, but in my mind, until the case was solved, they were just monuments to her being lost. Her goneness.

Hope beyond hope, I told myself. As they searched, I committed to being hopeful even when it seemed illogical. I could do that for the Grahams.

First, I hoped beyond hope that God would bring her home alive. That became harder as the days rolled on and the news conferences slowed. Then I hoped beyond hope that somehow Hannah’s mother wouldn’t disintegrate into grief. She seemed to almost collapse into herself one day on the podium, and the rest of us turned to each other with these whispering echoes of: I can’t imagine…Can’t imagine…Imagine that…I can’t. Since the most recent news conference, I’ve hoped beyond hope that God would sign His name here, too. That somehow the Grahams wouldn’t experience this hell without Him.


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