risking vulnerability

Ellynn and 18 year old me at the one and only Nice Slice back in 2009!

I’ll never forget the moment when I found out about Ellynn. I was sleeping on the couch of our old Williamsburg apartment when I got a call from Chris that woke me up.

“Have you heard about Ellynn?” Chris spoke in a broken voice.

I answered no, starting to feel a bit anxious.

“She was killed last night in a car accident.”

“What do you mean?” I asked quietly, as I began to sob.

The tragic finality of the idea that beautiful Ellynn no longer walks this earth as devoted wife, mother to her child and beloved friend to many haunts me to this day. She was one of my mentors in college, and would meet with me regularly to pray, listen to my numerous woes and impart wisdom. She was there for me during ill-fated romantic ventures, dating my future husband, coming into my own as a believer and the never-ending quest to find my life’s purpose. As with many influential people, I only fully realized the depth of her quiet but powerful influence once she was gone.

May 26th, 2016, the terrible day when I found out about Ellynn, was right in the middle of my Pediatrics rotation in medical school. For being such a nice group of doctors, those pediatricians had me stressed out of my mind trying to jam everything I could about mysterious little humans into my brain. But once I found out about Ellynn, those worries receded into the background, and a new concern began to gnaw at my soul - why did God let Ellynn die?

She was 34 years old. Her beautiful four-year-old son was in the back seat - thankfully his life was spared. Her husband spoke of how Ellynn would carefully strap him in to his car seat, every single time, and how that car seat saved his life. I never looked at a car seat the same way again, and I am now almost fanatical about their necessity, even in Manhattan. I should also mention - Ellynn’s car was hit head on by a drunk driver.

When I heard that my former church in Providence was hosting a memorial service, I got permission to miss a day of school and jumped on a Peter Pan bus, desperate to make sense of this senseless tragedy. So much could be said about the service - one of the most impactful experiences of my life - but it’s too painful to fully relive. One idea in particular, however, has stuck with me now for nearly three years. One of her friends said about her:

“Ellynn risked vulnerability and rejection because she was rooted in God’s love for her.”

I have an unfortunate (mostly past) tendency to demand exacting loyalty from my friends and to fear rejection more than anything in the world, so this one hit home. I also have difficulty trusting people (the reason(s) are convoluted and a very, very long story) and in the summer of 2017, I felt God speaking the words “trust, first” to my overly fearful heart. And if you know me from high school, you might think of me as timid, shy or even aloof.

Trust before you suspect. Make the first move in friendship. Risk vulnerability (and rejection!)

Why - I’d ask God - because people are inherently good and trustworthy and I was wrong all along about human nature?

No. Because I love you and the things you fear don’t actually matter. What do you have to fear? What do you have to prove? What do you have to lose? In me, you have everything that you need. My love for you is unconditional, unchanging, and unfailing.

Months after Ellynn’s memorial service, I was standing in the back of an operating room, an anonymous rotator observing a laparoscopic gyn-onc (female cancer) case, with tears streaming down my face. I was ruminating on the question that haunted me, only it had changed from why to how. How could God let Ellynn die?

I never suddenly had an aha moment where I figured out the answer. In fact, writing this got me so worked up that I had to stop for a week and come back to it. I have realized that the question is unanswerable and not worth pursuing. The only way forward is to allow God to shine light in the dark crevices of my heart, in light of Ellynn’s life well-lived.

Fast forward to today - I have by the grace of God developed a new ability to befriend people. I know many of my neighbors by name, and one family on our floor has become incredibly dear to us. I know the security guard who opens the door for us at our library is a twin and comes from Turkey. I know the name of the sweet woman who checks our electricity meter every month, along with the ages of her children. I’ve made friends at the farmer’s market, baby music concerts and my local yarn shop. I stop for twenty minute conversations with elderly women on the street, who love to ogle our children but really seem to crave adult conversation - the same thing I crave when I spend an entire day home alone with my children. I joined a local mom’s group last fall with the hope of maybe making one or two “real friends” (my old term for friends that I trust) and gained a wonderful community of women that lifts me up in times of need. For the first time in a very, very long time, I have a female best friend and I am not particularly concerned if she considers me her best friend in return.

What changed? Did I get a personality transplant, changing from introvert to extrovert? (Nope, still very much an introvert). I cannot explain this transformation without crediting the Holy Spirit working in my heart at a time when I was finally no longer rushed or mistrusting. I have become slower to take offense and quicker to give people the benefit of the doubt. I have become dramatically less concerned with what people think of me resulting in an ability to be vulnerable without fearing the consequences (what can man do to me when I have the Spirit of Christ?) My ability to talk to just about anyone is thanks to my foray into medicine, where I learned how to connect with people from every walk of life. (When I’d get back from talking to patients in the ER for admittedly overly long stretches, I’d frequently get sarcastic comments about how interesting the patient’s ear pain must have been - how thankful I am for the countless stories I heard and human connections I made at the expense of efficiency!)

If you are still reading this and are an estranged friend of mine, send me a text - I am a different person than I used to be, and I definitely 100% have time for you. And Ellynn - your life was too short, and it’s not fair. I’ll never understand, but with God’s grace, I am trying to live my life by your godly example to try to soften the blow to the world when it lost you too soon. Thank you for being the real you - may we all learn to be the versions of ourselves that the Lord created us to be. I can’t wait to see you again someday.

This is the bookmark that was handed out at Renaissance church at Ellynn’s memorial service in Providence, Rhode Island. I keep it in my bible and think about Ellynn nearly every day.

What would people say about you at your funeral if you died today?

Running after joy, one new friend at a time. - Mama Bear NYC

Sarah Unseth3 Comments