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Wednesday May 3, 2017

Traveling down the interstate, I noticed a billboard that I had passed many times before yet never really read. Its message was simple but brilliant. Bold, white words stamped on a soft baby-blue background read, "Broken crayons still color." I smiled and continued driving but then, in the same way a warm breeze can transport you to somewhere you have long forgotten, those big, white words carried me away to a memory almost forgotten.

In my mind, I immediately found myself sitting at a wooden table across from a boy who had recently lost his father. When I was a Kids Path bereavement counselor, I often joked that I was paid to play or that I was the only person in our agency allowed to document in crayon. But the truth is, I learned some valuable lessons about life, love, and loss while coloring submarines and drawing dragons. That particular visit provided one of those lessons that live on even after the event has been laid to rest.

I remembered myself and the child sitting in the dimly-lit dining room, rummaging through my box of crayons, looking for particular colors to complete our masterpieces. We discovered that many of my crayons were bent and broken. I had a bad habit of leaving my coloring box in the car on hot days. I should have remembered my childhood discovery that crayons do not react well to heat. I had learned this the hard way as I scraped splattered crayon from the roof of my grandmother’s microwave after attempting to make finger paint by heating my crayons in a Styrofoam bowl.

I apologized to the young man that my crayons were in such poor shape. He selected a broken cherry-red Crayola that was missing its wrapper and, before returning to his picture, said with a childish grin, "It's okay! Broken crayons still work."

I did not think much of his statement at the time, but today at the intersection of past and present, the deep truth concealed in his words spread a childish grin across my face, much like the one I had seen on his face that night after his dad’s death. True, people are not crayons, but I think there is a lesson about grief to be learned from crayons bent by heat and broken by pressure. Broken crayons still color and broken people are still useful.

People often feel useless and sometimes even worthless after a loss. It is as if death strips away some part of their identity, leaving them bare like a crayon whose label has been peeled away by a piddling child. In times of grief, questions surface that are sometimes difficult to answer: "Who am I now that I have lost someone who was so much a part of who I am?" "What do I have to live for, when what I lived for lives no more?" Those questions and many more can be summarized in the question, "What good is a broken crayon?"

I do not have the answers to all of the questions that a grieving person may struggle with, but I do know a lesson I learned from a little boy with a broken red crayon in his hand: Great beauty can rise from great brokenness when placed in the hands of a skilled artist. Looking back, I remember the final strokes added to the picture by my little friend. I can still see him hard at work, his tongue slightly sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he completed his masterpiece. He proudly held it up for my approval, and I have to say it may have just been the most beautiful red rose a six-year-old boy ever imagined onto paper.

As I write these words, a broken red crayon lay beside my computer as a reminder to appreciate the beauty that can come from brokenness. I hope I will never again associate brokenness with uselessness. Brokenness is not hopelessness; it is simply a chance to find a new use for an old object. I have learned not to be so quick to throw away the broken ones—they may be the ones needed to produce perfection in the artist’s masterpiece.

—Ben Webb, Special Contributor

Mountain Valley Hospice & Palliative Care offers free grief support to the community at large. For more information, contact us today at 336-789-2922 (toll-free 1-888-789-2922).

Tags: Grief Support