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Heart of the Matter: Sue Buchanan
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Sue Buchanan: When Sea Billows Roll

Most Homecoming Magazine readers are already well acquainted with Sue Buchanan. The wisecracking, leggy blonde with a penchant for pink feather boas never fails to bring us a laugh with her “I Can Tell You Stuff” column.

Truth be told, I have been known to flip through the magazine and head straight for her column before I even check out my own — she’s that entertaining! Sue has been a very visible part of the Homecoming family for decades, and her rich, 40-plus-years-and-counting friendship with Gloria Gaither has been well documented (particularly in the book they co-authored with Joy MacKenzie and Peggy Benson, Friends Through Thick and Thin). But behind the glamorous, fun-loving, “Auntie Mame” exterior is a woman of depth and courage who has faced some of the most difficult and heartbreaking experiences life has to offer. Sue Buchanan is a writer, speaker, humorist — and survivor, in the fullest sense of the word.

“When we had an editorial meeting about this issue, we tossed around a lot of ideas about loss,” Sue begins. “We talked about what books we might review, what topics we should cover, who could really speak on the subject of loss and bring it home. Finally someone at the table said, ‘Well, who do we know who has experienced more loss than just about anyone?’ And suddenly all of the fingers were pointing at me! Yep, I won, hands down!”

Sue Buchanan’s personal laundry list of loss is not for the faint of heart. In no particular order, it includes the following: Breast cancer followed by a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy. Leaving her home of 43 years. A brutal physical assault. The loss of the full use of her voice, affecting her ability to earn a living as a speaker. A heartbreaking divorce after almost 50 years of marriage. A serious fall (in true SueBue fashion, as a result of shaving her legs in the sink!) that required hospitalization and caused lingering damage. Significant financial setbacks. But the most shattering, unimaginable loss of all has been the death of her daughter Dana from breast cancer in 2009, at the age of 48.

“Dana and I were joined at the hip,” Sue tells me, softly. “We wrote books together, went on speaking engagements together, knitted together, laughed, cried and egged each other on. No other loss can compare to this one. My sister-inlaw, who lost her son, says it’s like ‘when sea billows roll’ — up, down, in, out, over, under, with never a moment to recover.”

Dana’s death left Sue inconsolable, and at times, barely able to function. “Early on, a friend made me an appointment with a psychiatrist who pulled out a prescription pad before I even opened my mouth. She pronounced that I was in deep depression and meds were the answer. I suddenly had an epiphany, and a loud one at that. I pounded on her desk and yelled that I was not in deep depression, I was in deep grief. And something in me instinctively knew that if I didn’t let myself feel it, I wasn’t going to be able to heal it.”

Sue’s intuitive decision to face her pain head-on saved her life. She bravely chose to allow the people who loved her to bear witness to that pain, and walk through it with her. “The antidote for me was my family first, and then my friends,” Sue says. “My brother Jon and his wife Becky moved me into their house and treated me like I was a child for a while. Bill and Gloria got down in the grief with me and held on tight. I have 25 different circles of friends from every walk of life and they all showed up to be with me—my Homecoming friends, my beauty shop girls, neighbors, my book club. They brought food, took me out to movies and on vacations, texted me, listened to me and made me laugh. My friends put up with the roller-coaster craziness of my moods, and loved me fiercely through it. They let me rant and rave, carry on, cuss — yes, cuss — because they understood. They got it. And if I cried, moaned and rolled on the floor, they did it right along with me.”

Inevitably in times of loss, even the most well-meaning friends can say the wrong thing. When I ask Sue if she had to endure any of “Job’s comforters” she doesn’t hesitate. “I’ve often heard Gloria say that as Christians, we have no real theology for loss. The worst thing that was said to me was, ‘You just need to read God’s Word and pray. You’ll get through.’ The reason that bothered me so much was that what it really felt like they were saying was, ‘Let’s sweep your pain under the rug and move on so I don’t have to deal with it.’ Another person said, ‘Well, sometimes God has to spank us…’ Really?” Sue shakes her head, and continues.

“The thing is, to this day I’ve not been angry at God. I’ve always felt He was right there, crying and hurting with me. About a year before all of these things started happening, I was at a retreat in Montana. We were told to go out into nature with our Bibles and just listen for what God might have for us. All I can tell you is that God was there waiting, and I felt His peace surround me like a blanket. It was a deep soul experience that prepared me for what lay ahead. God began to pull me close, making me at home in His love.”

Sue leans in. “I’m not a theologian, but here’s my truth about loss: We can’t heal unless we feel. To me that means I have to cry when I need to cry, laugh when I need to laugh, talk about Dana whenever I have the urge to, relive her last days over and over if I need to. I’ve had to learn how to say, ‘OK, I’m going to need someone to pick up a fork and put it in my mouth. I’m going to need to be carried for a while.’ I’ve been on the receiving end of every good gift from the ones who love me, and now maybe it’s up to me to show others how to help grieving people. Sometimes we’re afraid that we’ll be infringing, so we stand back. I always say even if you don’t know what to do, do something. Show up. Hang around. Call. If they can’t talk, do all the talking. If you make a good casserole, go take them one. If you pray, go to the hospital and sit in the chapel. Put a pillow under the head of someone who can’t lift their head. Be present.”

“I’m a now kind of person,” Sue admits in a wistful voice. “While thoughts of the resurrection comfort a little, Dana is gone now. I can’t talk to her, call her, see her, forward some funny email that only the two of us will get. But that experience with God in Montana still holds me. It has transcended into my friends who show up regularly, and my lovely daughter Mindy, who is my soul mate. That pulling in, that loving, comforting peace continues until this very day.”