by Terence Lester, Ph.D.
CW: car accident, trauma, depression
Saturday, May 14 was one of the hardest nights of my life.
It was the day after I received the “Humanitarian of the Year” award from the National Urban League of Greater Atlanta. After celebrating this honor with a few friends, my wife and I left the restaurant around 11 PM. “I’ll talk to you later. Be safe!” I called out to my friends—unaware of how these words would prove to be ironic in the minutes ahead.
Cecilia took the wheel while I slumped into the passenger seat and soon fell asleep. Ten minutes later, I jerked awake as I heard my wife began to scream. “Oh no, oh no!” she called out. The airbag deployed, breaking several bones in my face, and before I knew it, I found myself blacked out on the ground with an EMT running over to my body.
“Flip him over,” I heard one person say. I could see police lights and people checking to see if I was still alive. I came to, and suddenly, I saw my wife limping around a mangled car to make her way to me. I blacked out again and woke up in the back of the ambulance. They asked where they should take me. Cecilia suggested they move me to Northside Hospital, which she knew provided excellent care. But the EMTs suggested I be transported to Grady Hospital instead, because it specialized in dealing with victims of trauma.
When we arrived at Grady, the EMTs moved me to a bed. The pain was indescribable. I knew something was wrong, because my face was numb on the right side, and I could feel something wrong with my back and right leg. A few minutes later, they rushed me to an x-ray machine and slid me on to a table. There I found out my femur had burst through the back of my pelvis—breaking both my hip and pelvis. After this discovery, the doctor told me he had to do emergency surgery, in which they would place a ten-pound rod in the bottom of my leg and pull my leg forward to keep it from crushing the nerve next to my artery. He told me flat out, if they didn’t move quickly it could cause even greater nerve damage.
While the two surgeries were supposed to happen within hours of each other, I ended up having to wait about five additional hours to be placed in a room because there were none available. I was literally in the hallway in excoriating pain with little to no medical aid—and few pain pills until I could be placed.
After being told I would have the second, more major surgery that night, it ended up being pushed back to almost a day later. Remembering this painful night brings all types of emotions—anger, sadness, shame, confusion, doubt, disbelief, and a number of thoughts I am still processing. How could everything be going well one moment, with my career at an all-time high, and then boom, I have a rock bottom moment? I ended up spending almost a month in the hospital, and I still remember the day I left when my wife came to pick me up. I was afraid to get into another car, I realized that I was now part of the disabled community, and the doctor told me it would take a year or longer to get back to walking or moving around like I once did.
On the one hand, words cannot express how grateful I am for all those who reached out, that my life was spared, and that I was able to go home and be with my family, but on the other, I was not prepared for the shame, guilt, depression, and grief that followed. For almost four months, I was unable to walk on my own or feed myself, and I was confined to a bed most days dealing with severe nerve pain. The pain was so intense that I was taking over twenty pills a day just to survive. This was my lowest.
Everything I had known had changed, including work (I was not able to fundraise for the organization I lead), movement (I was not able to move around), and how I saw myself. All my life, I had been accustomed to moving on my own, using my body to advocate for the poor, and using my gifts to find my sense of worth. I no longer had that. Who am I? I asked when I could no longer get validation through movement. What good am I? I asked when I no longer saw myself as worthy because of my disability.
The combination of grief and shame weighed me down, and rightfully so. I had just experienced a major trauma for which, at that moment, I did not even believe God had an answer. Eventually, I was able to start walking again through the help of one of my friends, a doctor who came to our home to help me to learn how to walk again long before the time I had been told I would be able to walk. But before I get into that story, I wanted to share three simple things I learned about grief during this time—because I know there are other people who are going through intense seasons of grief and who are suffering, sometimes without any quick fixes or answers.
First, I had to realize that the trauma and grief I was experiencing did not mean that my worth had somehow vanished.
As hard as it feels to write this, looking back, I realized that my worth was not defined by my ability to produce, work, move, or any of the things in which I had once found worth. My worth was valid because I was breathing. Realizing that my worth was not defined by the trauma I experienced or the grief I had to walk through gave me the power to give myself grace when experiencing a low point in my life.
Second, I had to realize that I did not have to be ashamed of my grief, or that my grief did not have to look like other people’s grief journeys.
When I realized that it was okay to feel all my emotions about what happened to me, I realized that I no longer had to rush past my pain or take someone else’s steps to navigate the grief that was unique to me. My wife and I almost lost our lives, and that was a huge trauma. There were days when I cried, days when I journaled, days when I was angry at God, and days when I sat silent with a bunch of questions. Although I still do not have an answer for why it happened, I am glad I gave myself the space to feel.
Third and last, I learned that grief has no expiration date.
In fact, just writing this has brought me to tears a few times, but knowing that the grief journey is about learning to journey with grief over time helps me to understand that I do not have to always try to fix it. I am learning to give myself grace as I recover from one of the most painful moments of my life to date, and if you find yourself in a similar place, I would encourage you to do the same.
It has taken me some time to find hope again, dream again, and even use my faith as strength to move toward healing, but I am glad I am taking those steps, and I hope you do the same.
I will be the first to admit I do not know what God is doing through this pain. Some days, it makes no sense to me. But I know he is working in me, and I am equally confident he is working in you.
About Terence Lester
Terence Lester (PhD, Interdisciplinary Studies, Union Institute and University) is a minister, speaker, community activist, author, and founder of Love Beyond Walls, a not-for-profit organization focused on poverty awareness and community mobilization. He received his PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Public Policy and Social Change from Union Institute and University.
His campaigns on behalf of the poor, including #LoveSinksIn (which provides handwashing stations for the poor) have been featured in USA Today, Black Enterprise, Essence, and Reader’s Digest. They have been viewed by millions of people globally on The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS News, NBC, Upworthy, and “The Bright Side” with Katie Couric. He was named by Coca-Cola as one of their History Shakers. Terence has delivered countless sermons and speeches at conferences, churches, and schools around the country. He has served on several ministerial staffs and currently writes a weekly newsletter entitled, “From Streets to Scholarship” that addresses the intersection of public policy, poverty, race, and faith. His books include I See You, When We Stand, and All God’s Children.
Terence has also received numerous awards for his community activism including the Atlanta 500 (2020–2023), Brawny Giant Award (2020), American Express NextGen Award (2020) Empire Board of Realtists Distinguished Service Award (2017), SCLC Social Advocacy Award (2016), Atlanta Voice’s 50 under 50 honor (2016), and the True to Atlanta Award presented by the Atlanta Hawks (2016). He and his wife, Cecilia, and their family live in Atlanta.