Bomb Shelters

Somedays my heart looks like a flower. A thing of beauty, living and growing. Somedays it looks more like a bomb shelter. A cold, dark husk, closed and terrified.


I’ve discovered there’s a world of difference between honesty and vulnerability. It’s the difference between grief and mourning, despair and hope, death and life.

I started seeing a counselor a month ago. That story involves a new church, losing my job, and plenty of confusion, so I’ll skip it. This week is the fifth anniversary of my mom’s death, and I’ve spent the last five years grieving, alone.

I will never forget the night she passed away. I will never forget the fear, nor the confusion in my father’s voice when he called. I will never forget the terror that enveloped me, the powerlessness that overwhelmed me when I realized there was nothing I could do.

My counselor asked me to recount that memory a few weeks ago. I was surprised by the words that tumbled out of my mouth. “That was the night hope died. That was the night I shut my heart down.”

I never realized how drastically my heart and mind changed that night. I never realized that same powerlessness still haunts me, drives me to try to control everything in my life. I never realized that I reverted to an old defense mechanism because I was too overwhelmed to function on my own.

When I was a freshman in high school, I was tiny. Five-feet, two-inches of scrawny, pale flesh with a big mouth. I got the snot kicked out of me a lot. My emotions ran deep and hit hard, harder than the fists my classmates drove into my gut and crotch. I didn’t know how to cope, so I chose not to. I didn’t realize it then, but I began to wall off my heart and soul. I numbed out my emotions and lived only in my head.

That changed in college. Away from home, away from high school, I began to make some terrific friends, not the least of whom was my brother, Robert. I began to live again. To laugh. To smile. To dream dreams beyond the confines of logic and my bank account. To hope for something more than a good job and a steady paycheck. It was wonderful, but it didn’t last long.

A year later, Mom died suddenly. Just didn’t wake up one morning. It took less than two hours for me to lock my heart down again and let my head do all the living. Instead of taking the time to mourn and heal and care for myself, I ignored my emotions and fought for control. I focused on my classwork, my job, and helping my family. I served everyone’s needs but my own. I inserted myself as everyone’s savior instead of allowing my Savior to heal me. When I thought I’d found control again, Robert was diagnosed with testicular cancer. That illusion of control was shattered, yet I gathered up the shards anyway.

In some ways, it served me well. I kept myself (mostly) collected while I took care of Robert in the hospital. If I’d let my emotions overwhelm me there, both Robert and I would have been in trouble. But stoicism only serves our hearts while we must survive; it is not a solution for living long-term. It wasn’t until after he passed away that I connected with the pain, but only for long enough to acknowledge it. Not nearly enough time to actually heal.

I put words to my pain, but failed to address it. Which is the difference between acknowledging that a septic tank is overflowing and getting it pumped out. Instead of asking for help, I ignored my heart and fought for control again. The pain and my need to find control seeped into everything I did. I totaled a brand new car two years ago and it nearly broke my heart. I dated an amazing woman for a few months and inadvertently tried to control the whole relationship, had to be around her every second of the day. I started writing a novel and nearly lost my mind when the story became darker and more real that I anticipated. I shunned the woman my dad fell in love with and married because it meant he spent less time with me. It was not pretty and it was not intentional. But it happened.

I began to unravel about a month ago, while I sat in a brand new church and listened to the pastor preach on Galatians 6:2. A single thought parked itself in the center of my mind. “In all these years, I’ve never allowed anyone to weep with me. I’ve never allowed anyone close enough to bear my burden.

I spent years learning not to ask for help. It wasn’t easy to take those first few steps into a counselor’s office. Wasn’t (isn’t) easy to let myself break down in front of a perfect stranger. Wasn’t easy to ask some friends and family to pray for me this morning because I just hurt today.

Vulnerability is hard. As a new friend told me the other day, “Vulnerability means tearing down our walls. And there is safety behind those walls.

Yes, but we find no freedom there. I don’t understand it, but I’m learning this: Vulnerability always leads to freedom, even (and especially) if it’s scary as hell.

I write this not because I need people to throw me a pity party, but because I’m doing everything I can to finally heal. And hopefully, my vulnerability might encourage a few other heartbroken people to do the same.

I’m betting this is going to be the first of many new posts. Here’s to flowers, not bomb shelters.

With all my love,


About the author / JoeFuel


  • Jacques


    Thanks for writing. Since I became a Christian, I have always considered you my brother (just as I consider Rob and Jimmy my brothers). I don’t pretend to know all that you have been through, but I hurt with you, bro. I didn’t want my own mom to go through all that she went through – all the pain, physical and emotional. It definitely affected me in soul-crushing kind of way. For months after she passed away, I felt physical pain in my body. For years, I felt emotional pain, but I was running from it, until it all finally caught up with me, and I collapsed. Milan had to come to Connecticut to get me and drive me to Virginia, where I could recover for a while. God ministered to me there. I would love to tell you all about it, but for now, let me just tell you the most important way that he ministered to me. God reminded me of the gospel. He showed me that I need the grace of the gospel everyday, like bread. This bread is in endless supply and absolutely free. I don’t need to prove my worth, because Jesus loves me and has laid down his life for me. Each day, I need to feed on this truth. Each day, I need to extend it to others (And why not? It’s free, never-ending, and life-giving!). This bread is here for you, too, bro. If you feel weak, take some and eat. Let it nourish you each day as you recover. Let the grace of the gospel heal the deep wounds that go back as far as you can remember. Let the truth of the gospel show you that you are a new creation in Christ, the old has gone, the new has come. Let the grace of the gospel remind you that God will carry forth to completion the good work that he began in you. I see it, and so do others. We see God’s grace in you, bro. We love and cherish you, and we are blessed to have you in our lives. Hope to see you again soon.


    • JoeFuel

      Thanks, Jacques.
      That means more than you know.

  • Swellsk

    I love when you write, Joe. Here I am at work trying to not cry everywhere…because your vulnerability is confirmation to me. PK was telling me yesterday that I’m stuck. And I am. Probably stuck in that same stoicism you mentioned that is not meant to be long-term (such a good sentence!) I can’t express myself as well as you- I don’t know where I went wrong- but at some point, I gave up and now I’m stuck doing the same things over and over with little Meaning. Nothing I’ve gone through compares with what you have, but your healing experience is running concurrent with mine (for whatever reason I need it) and your vulnerability is jumpstarting my own. PK would thank you.

    • JoeFuel

      Hang in there, sis. But don’t bother comparing suffering and trials. That’s never been the point.

      He will heal us, so long as we are willing.

      Much love.


    Joe, what a gift of insight you’ve been given! Thank you for sharing your gift with the rest of us! I believe true Healing never can fully be complete with just time or on our own, but it must be accompanied with your fellow man, carrying you through harsh Valleys. Another reason God gifted us with fellowship and the church. Its inspiring to hear of your revelation and your steps towards healing. Transparency is an overlooked Christ like character trait…refreshing to see it in you!
    Praying a tremendous Spring for your flowers-
    Peter Jordan
    (curly headed dude from Paseo)

    • JoeFuel

      Thanks, Peter. Suddenly, I don’t feel quite so emasculated for comparing my heart to a flower. 🙂


        Wouldn’t change the wording at all. Perfectly spoken. Even us men can appreciate the delicates God created…revealing even his tenderness. 😉

  • Cassi

    Joe! Poignant and brave and tender and you are more of a man for having a heart flower <3

  • Hi Joe – I was your customer several times at Crust and always enjoyed visiting with you. We started talking when my companion asked you about your tattoo. Your intelligence and sensitivity were very apparent, as was the deep river flowing through you. Just want you to know that, although it took me this long to finally visit, I’m glad I did. I have thought of you often, hoped you are well and thriving. As a fellow traveler with depression and anxiety issues, I know the writing is immensely important, taking us to where we can convert suffering and uncertainty into beauty and some sense of peace. My best to you. m

  • Brenda Morrow

    Joe, I remember the day of your mom’s service, of how concerned I was for you. I love reading your writing. Since you were little, you were always sensitive, painfully insightful, brooding and deep, intensely honest. I have loved these essays, and I cannot wait to see where you will go as a candid writer who will touch many lives! I believe so much in you! Brenda Morrow

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