Resolved to Heal?

After an injury or trauma of any kind, we often want to know how to heal. What must we do to regain our abbey1 by you.health? How long will it take before we are returned to normal? This is true whether the trauma is physical or psychological. Indeed, after I wrote recently about my daughter’s death, people asked how did I heal? What was the recovery process like for me, and how did I resolve my grief? These are challenging questions to answer after a significant loss, because they assume that one does heal, that life goes on and the bereaved return to their previous state, or attain a new state of health that has assimilated their great loss. But is it realistic to assume that people do, in fact, recover? Do we, in actuality, heal after suffering a permanent loss?

I spoke for an hour or so last week with my friend Amy, who lost her baby last year. I asked her if she felt that she had healed, and she replied, “No, of course not. You don’t heal, really; you just go on.” I know many others who have lost loved ones with whom they were very close, who agree that healing isn’t the word for what happens to us afterward. I think that sometimes we don’t heal as abbey2 by you.much as we build a temenos in the place in our hearts where the beloved was. We return to that place whenever we need to, but someone (or something) is always missing–always, in a most permanent way, as long as we live. Even if we believe, as spiritual people do, that this life is not permanent and that another life or world will arrive in which our state of loss is not permanent and in which, in fact, we will see the restoration of everything that was once lost, we will still and always suffer from what was lost in this life. And this life is really the only one I’m qualified to write about, most particularly my own life and how loss has worked for me.

Years before Olivia died, I had worked as a counseling psychologist specializing in lives and families built on, living with, or recovering from loss and trauma. I counseled many bereaved parents, infertile couples, mothers who had placed children for adoption, and foster and adoptive families, among others. I own close to one hundred books about loss, trauma, and bereavement, and all of them expect the bereaved person to recover, to heal, and to resolve their grief. As a professional, I was trained as a healer, and so I too initially expected that my clients would “heal.”

Over time, however, and having left behind the developmental hardiness and invulnerability of the twenty- or thirty-something, I came to understand that some wounds never do heal. Some losses are, in fact, permanent; for some mistakes, we do not get do-overs. Though Lazarus rose from the dead, most people do not. We stand slack-jawed, sackcloth and ashes for our garments.

What it Means to Heal

abbey11 by you.The word heal comes from the Old English word hælan, to make hale, whole, or free from infirmity. Among traditional therapists and counselors, it is a favorite word that means next to nothing when applied to the aftermath of losing one’s beloved. How can we expect a person whose life has been shattered to reassemble pieces that have been blown to smithereens? We total cars, but we don’t total human beings; we expect nothing less than a full recovery. If physical recovery is not possible, we demand the psychological one.

Another favorite concept among professionals and laypersons alike is “resolution.” “Have you resolved your loss?” they ask. “Has your grief been resolved?” they want to know. But, having been on both sides of the therapeutic encounter, I’m not so sure that there is a final resolution when it is your spouse, your child, your parent or your closest sibling who is dead or lost to you forever. It’s easy to sit in the place of a therapist and tell a client that you’ll work toward resolution of that client’s grief; much harder to achieve something that looks like resolution, that looks like healing.

To resolve something is to make a mental determination about it, to finalize something intentionally. It may also mean to change, convert, or transform by breaking apart. How apt this word is when used in relation to grief and mourning. Perhaps when we ask how someone resolved abbey10 by you.their loss, we mean, “How did you transform? How did this breaking of your heart convert and change you?” Perhaps, when the conscious, compassionate person asks this question, what she means is also, “What transformation occurred, so that I may understand and have hope for when I, too, am torn asunder by the great losses that are coming to me in this life?” For the conscious person knows that losses are coming, that life is suffering and that in this world, we will have tribulation. He or she builds a life that can withstand a great shaking, a life that is emergent after three days and three nights in the belly of the whale.

But just as sure as there are wise folk who will ask about how a loss was healed or resolved, and will mean how transformation occurred, there are also foolish folk who mean nothing of the sort. They’re irritated by people who grieve, and they want us to stop it right now, or as soon as possible. They want us to stop feeling pain so that we’ll stop expressing it. For their sake, we need to be fun to be around again, no longer needing or wanting to talk about our loss so that we can shift our attention to other things and other people—most particularly to the person who wants us to stop grieving.

These people ask, “How did you heal?” but they mean, “Get over it, already!” They seem to think that by asking about healing, they’ll facilitate it. This is especially true, I’ve noticed, among particular types of abbey5 by you.Christians. I call them “Abbey Press (or Mardel) Christians” because they seem able to resolve their problems through Merry Christmas from Heaven ornaments, Whispers from Heaven wind chimes, and I Am With You Always garden stones. If, unlike them, we grieve for more than a few weeks or months, we are “doubting God;” if we mourn too keenly, or talk about how we look forward to seeing our child in heaven, they say we loved our children more than we love God. In their impatience and unconsciousness, they demand that we get past our moroseness, our self-pity, our whining, so that we’ll be available to them again, and so that they can once more be the center of attention.

Some unconscious people are narcissists who need constant attention and care, wanting everything to be about them all the time. They have little or no tolerance for departures from this rule. They are the friends, family members, and fellow churchgoers who disappear when we need them most, and who push us to be ‘normal’ again only a few weeks or months after a death has occurred. They push out of their own ignorance, their unconsciousness to their own pain, and their resistance to the suffering inherent in being a human being living in a fallen world. They want to be immune to it, and so they demand that we be immune.

The First Six Months: Acute Grief

abbey6 by you.The empirical fact is that most bereaved people are not in their right minds for at least six months after they’ve lost someone with whom they were very close; and here I must pause to make another distinction: there’s loss, and then there’s great loss. I think that the depth of love and relational intimacy in a relationship are directly proportional to the intensity of grief and mourning experienced afterward by the bereaved. The greater the love, the greater the loss. This is true, I find, even when no actual relational intimacy occurred over time, such as between the mother who relinquished her child for adoption, and the child who was relinquished. The two may never meet, but the grief experienced by mother or child can be every bit as intense and long-lived as that experienced by people who lived with one another for years. This is so because of the spiritual and psychological intimacy one had with the other, even if only in the soul of the bereaved. Love is love, I say.

Likewise, one can live with or near another person for most of one’s life and feel little more than relief and a vague guilt when that person dies. We mutter about what might have been, shrug our shoulders, and go on with our lives. They gave nothing of themselves, seemed to have no deep emotional core that could be shared with another human being. We attend the funeral or memorial service, and we move on. Goodbye.

But if we lose someone very dear to us, we are not ourselves for many, many months. In fact, the selves we will become as a result of such a large loss have not yet appeared. We experience acute grief for at least six abbey9 by you.months, based on research with bereaved people. Everything I experienced after Olivia died-chest pains, stomach pains, mental fog, forgetfulness, intense emotion and longing-was textbook normal. So, if we expect those who have lost mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, or child with whom they were close to be themselves any time soon afterward, then we’re uninformed. There is no return to ‘normal’ any time soon after a great loss has occurred. And if there is any ambiguity about the loss, such as the loss of a child due to kidnapping or perhaps adoption, or to foster care, and even due to miscarriage, where the child is lost to some people but not to others, then there is no generalizable rule to guide how the bereaved person will grieve. If the grief of those who go through normal losses is profound and life-altering, how much more the grief of those who have no grave to visit. In such situations we can only respond with compassion and hope that a phoenix will arise out of the ashes of the loss. We can only be loving witnesses in such cases; there is nothing we can do to facilitate resolution. It’s not our power that calls forth people from the tomb, or that re-animates what has gone to dust.  It’s a “God thing,” as they say in 12-step programs.

Three Years Later, and Still Mourning

abbey8 by you.Even after six months or more of acute grief, most people who have suffered a significant loss do not complete their initial mourning cycle for at least one year. After the anniversary of the loss comes and goes, most bereaved people continue to mourn for two or three years following the loss of a significantly loved person. Many say that the second year of bereavement is harder than the first; and most bereaved people cannot even make sense of their loss for as many as three years after the loss occurred. Most never really get over it. Most simply learn to live with it. We all hope to integrate the loss and build new lives.

Resources

The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child, Barbara D. Rosof

When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss, Claudia Jewett Jarratt

Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom

Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying, Maggie Callanan & Patricia Kelley

A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis

11 responses

  1. I think that our relationships make the other person a part of ourselves, to varying degrees. The person whose loss you don’t overly mourn is like a haircut. The deeply loved person is more like a limb. Do we expect amputees to “get over it” and become whole again? Of course not.

    To me this is a sign of our culture of materialism: a dead loved one is just gone, and we should get over it, but we have no trouble accepting the long-term effects of a trauma to our physical bodies.

  2. Hi Eve,

    I’ve been too swamped with things to do the last couple of days to respond.

    RE: “Suffice to say that I think if we used the definition I used here for “healing,” which retains the original intention of the word, we would not be arguing about the interpretation of the meaning of this word.”

    You are right. As a professor once said, we often fight about answers without stopping to realize that we have different answers because we are asking different questions. If we accept your definition of healing, we have no argument. But etymology continues and word do have connotations as well as denotations. Thus, I think some other points are valid (but perhaps not here and now).

    I had originally planned to explain that I often find I write better from negative rather than positive emotions. By negative I mean sadness, and by positive I mean happy. This is just an observation I have made. Write from emotion (passion) and revise with less emotion has given me good results. What I don’t what to do is argue about definitions.

  3. Eve,

    You will forgive me for misleading you; by having written in general terms I utterly failed to articulate or convey what I intended.

    I completely agree with the conclusion of the definition of heal/ed that you use. One cannot go back; the loss, both externally and internally, cannot be undone. However, I question its usefulness in relation to the internal ambiguities of a human life/identity. It is not wrong, but I don’t know that it is the most encompassing.

    Is the wholeness of a blank canvas preferable, better, or a truer wholeness than the canvas that has lost its pristine whiteness stroke by stroke to become a painting? Is the ragged and dirty condition of a well-loved and favorite stuffed animal less whole for having suffered the love a small child than it was when it was new on the shelf in a store?

    Is a tree that has lost branches in a storm but continues to live less whole? Has the loss of the branches somehow reduced its essential “tree-ness”? To be healed, must the branches that were lost be returned or is it enough that the tree continues to live and grow, perchance to thrive? Is a lake that is drunk from less whole? Is it more or too whole when it rains or the snows melt and rush down the mountain to it?

    I don’t know that heal or whole are either/or propositions, that one either is or isn’t. I don’t know that to be whole or free from infirmity implies a lack of suffering so much as a lack of capability.

    Her Saddest Dress

    I will wear
    my saddest dress
    she said,
    for the nights have become too long
    too deep
    and the days—
    unbearably bright.
    I will wear
    my blackest dress
    she said,
    because people are incapable of seeing
    the depths of my sorrow
    that my words cannot
    bridge the chasm
    and happiness has become so commercial
    and irresponsible.
    I cannot cry
    for the world’s woes
    she said,
    but
    I can dress for the occasion—
    and so I will
    put on my saddest
    dress
    and wear it with all the slow, quiet, and profound dignity
    of a dirge on a rainy autumn evening.

  4. I was fortunate though that I never really lost my daughter, so I don’t know what you went through. I only lost my dream child, my real child is still with me, thankfully. But I wouldn’t trade her for a “normal” version of herself, or maybe I would. Would it be selfish of me to keep her the way she is, just so that I could keep all that I’ve learned? I guess it doesn’t really matter, I can’t trade her and I love her just as she is.

    I wrote this awhile ago, but it still says how I feel about her.

    My love for Katie is like a vine that winds it’s way around and through my heart, a love so intricate and delicate that I can’t tell where it starts or where it ends. It is woven through the walls of my heart, and attaches to my very soul. This love has no end.

  5. Deb, wow, your dream was powerful and disturbing.

    I find myself disturbed today, thinking about the issue of healing, and the idea of not healing. It goes deep into the human condition. I think of some of the symbolic ideas that capture the essence of what it is to be human: the Fall, Lot’s wife looking back and being turned into a pillar of salt; myths of fallen gods and goddesses who never are redeemed; Jacob and Esau (“Jacob have I loved, but Esau I hated.”). Wounds that will not heal.

    On the other side, we have stories and images of transcendence, of people rising above and beyond; Christ out of the tomb; the barren giving birth; Buddha under the bohdi tree; stories of heaven.

    Your last sentence here, “she’s taught me so much, Im grateful,” reminds me of something I read about Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Rabbi Kushner lost his son. Afterward, he grew in wisdom, eventually writing his best-selling book. But he said that he would give up all his wisdom and everything he’d learned just to have his son back; even if it meant he’d never be anything but a mediocre rabbi. Which is what he was before his son died, he said.

    I thought this was interesting. As I’ve worked at thinking and feeling my way back through my daughter’s illness and death, and the aftermath, I know I’m changed in profound ways. But not only do I grieve her, I grieve the loss of the person I was before her death. I can never be who I was. I’ve seen things about myself and other people that I never wanted to see. I am wiser, yes; I am better in many ways. But I am also worse and more jaded, more serious, less of a lot of qualities, too, than I was.

    Sigh.

  6. I think we heal but in such a way that we are altered, forever. A scar forms, a permanent reminder of who we lost. We adapt but the scar remains.

    And I think we’re not ourselves and yet also ourselves. I know after Katie’s diagnosis I was still me but dealing with the biggest stressor I had ever encountered. I was in shock and functioned on automatic pilot. I cooked, I drove, I worked but I felt nothing but pain and saw nothing but pain. The world became colorless, featureless, one giant, horrible nightmare that I was stuck in the middle of, with no way out, but through it. It was a part of me, but not a part of me I had ever dealt with before. If that makes any sense?

    I dreamed some nights of a woman, caught in a blast, her flesh hanging from her body in ribbons and that’s how I felt. A world beyond any pain I had ever known. It took years to leave that pain behind. Katie’s sixteen now and I forget sometimes how far her and I have come. She’s taught me so much, I’m grateful.

  7. Helen, thanks for your comments. I’d like to know what you intended to comment about, because I have several ideas fermenting in my mind about this topic, and it might help me decide which one to finish writing first. I was struck by Deb’s crying as she wrote about her daughter, too, and wanted to write about that aspect in myself as well. Tears are always nearby when I go down that path, too. So I wondered what it triggered in you, if you’d be willing to share.

    Now, about healing. You and the Librarian seem to want to insist that healing is anything that occurs after a big loss, any integration of the loss, any sense one makes of it. I don’t want to agree with that idea about healing. As I wrote, the word “heal” comes from that OE word, haelen, meaning to make hale, whole or free from infirmity. I have yet to meet someone who has lost another person very close to them who can say that they are free from the infirmity the loss caused. There was a loss; the loss doesn’t go away. In the true sense of the word “heal,” one does not heal.

    On the clinical side, on the other hand, “healing” occurs when someone who has been unable to carry on the everyday requirements of life becomes able, after help, to once again return to everyday life. The DSM signifies psychiatric illness to whatever extent normal life and relationships are disrupted. Obviously, many bereaved people never have much problem doing their normal duties. Any parent who has lost a child (or anyone else) must keep parenting the remaining children. We manage the household, go to work, feed everyone and generally do all the duties we formerly did. By this measure, it might be said that one is already “healed” because one gets out of bed in the morning, feeds the dogs, feeds the family, and pays the bills. But clearly we do not mean this particular use of the word.

    What do we mean, then? Most particularly, what do I mean? I mean the classical use of the word in its actual meaning. Maybe there is some resistance in you two to that use, maybe not; maybe I have some resistance to healing, or to the idea of not healing. I know I’ve met with resistance in others about it, though, and most particularly when I suggest that some wounds do not heal. People seem quite resistant to that idea, the idea of No Healing.

    The analytical side of me (the Jungian side) wonders why people are so resistant to the idea that healing cannot or does not occur in some situations? We are not made whole after some losses by those losses, even if we achieve wholeness independent of the loss later; the two do not necessarily go together. I think the loss exists in its own right, separate from, and yet part of, who we are.

    My adopted children, for example, have lost their birth families. Even those who know and are in ongoing relationship or contact with their birth families have lost much. Some have lost their cultures and original languages, too. These losses do not bar them forever from becoming whole human beings; but they are losses that are permanent. No one and nothing can make up for these losses in this life. Therefore, they are not healed on the level of being who they would have been had they never been adopted. What was lost to them will always be lost in this life. There is no “healing.”

    In America, particularly, we have popularized this term “healing” until it has lost all meaning and clinical significance. I resist the way it is popularly used, even among some traditional family type therapists, because it doesn’t serve people who have experienced substantial losses.

    There’s not enough space here or in me at the moment to address the concept of Chiron, the wounded healer. Suffice to say that I think if we used the definition I used here for “healing,” which retains the original intention of the word, we would not be arguing about the interpretation of the meaning of this word.

    This all gives me much food for thought. I’m chewing the cud of that thought and we’ll see what regurgitates after it makes its way through my four stomachs. Moooo.

  8. Eve, I misunderstood what you were going to write about, so the comments I had in mind don’t fit here. I do, however, see the point made by the Librarian in Purgatory, semantics do enter here. I am not trained in psychology (12 hours is just enough to be dangerous), so the words you found objectionable don’t have the same connotations to me that they seem to for you.

    To me, “healing” means to come to terms with the fact that loss is “real,” to accept the fact that we won’t wake up from the nightmare that occurs even when one is awake after a significant loss, or, at least, it has for me (when I lost my father, father-in-law, and mother-in-law). The loss of my father was the most significant. “Healing” meant accepting the fact that nothing would ever be the same and that my dad had to be a continuing part of my life in a very different way than he had (before his death), a way that was totally unfamiliar to me, a way that meant (and means) that while I am comfortable knowing he’s in heaven (and that heaven is truly “a better place”) that it is just fine to miss him and mourn my loss. I own that loss; it is not his loss but mine.

    Another part of what I think is “healing” includes allowing other family members to have different reactions and to refrain from ranking those reactions in relation to my own. We see only what others allow us to see. What they choose to keep private we cannot know.

    I see the word “healing” the way Henri Nouwen used it in his best known book “The Wounded Healer.” We minister to others from our own painful life for we have no other life to offer. I know healing, at least for me, has a spiritual dimension.

  9. Librarian, I think I see what you’re saying; you’re saying that who they are is in a state of flux and becoming, so that whoever they are in the moment of flux is still who they are–that a stable identity exists, even if it revises itself moment-by-moment.

    I’m going to disagree from an experiential standpoint and on a clinical basis. The traumatized person is a fractured person who often actually does not have any stable identity. They are literally “not themselves,” and they are not anyone else, either. It would be a sort of purgatory of personality, perhaps a state of potential becoming but also of potentially wrecking, not a state of being.

    I could belabor the point, but I won’t. I can see spiritual arguments on both sides. From a divine perspective, the person is always who they are based on the spiritual potential, if you will, of that individual (or maybe even of all of us, who knows?). But from a human perspective, the person is not himself and also not anyone else; it’s like Limbo or another place where unresolved lives go, this initial acute phase of grief. I think probably that I’m coming from a clinical standpoint and you’re coming from a more philosophical one and on those different levels we both argue from standpoints with merit. In the end, we’re both correct. But I’m still writing about what it’s like to live through it and experience the acute grief, which is very much like living without one’s own identity. And having no replacement (yet).

  10. It is largely semantics, and I’m not disagreeing with you, but to say that someone “is not themselves” for the first six months is misleading, at best. Of course they are themselves, probably more so than they have ever been, what is different or changing, in flux, is who they are. To say they are not themselves is to deny, fundamentally, what they are going through and who they are becoming—which is still much up in the air— and to incorrectly assume that they will somehow be the same person when this “indeterminate time of grieving” is complete. I only point this out as the semantics of this lead to incorrect assumptions, namely that the individual is or has allegedly left what is considered “normal” reality and will then returning to it like someone who has swerved off the road by accident.

    Any major traumatic experience is a life-changing event for the survivor(s) and is more akin to a painful and confusing rebirth as the trauma will change them in such a way, usually in spite of their wishes, that they are incapable of being exactly the same person as they were before the trauma. While, in this case, death is a transition for the deceased, I would venture that trauma is an even bigger transition for those who remain behind and are affected by it. As such, there are generally two ways of dealing with such circumstances: remaining or going unconscious (repression, disassociation, etc.) or remaining open and conscious in the face of the uncertainty, grief, and suffering. In the case of the latter, eventually, the wound will be, not completely healed— a scar will remain— but transcended; the trauma incorporated AND moved beyond in the individual as they grow; their perspective transitioning from being the wound/trauma to having the wound/trauma.

    While not meaning to minimize anyone’s trauma in anyway, I think much of the difficulty in coping and healing is generated in the idea/semantics/concept of “returning to normal” instead of transitioning into an individual who, through mourning and grieving, incorporates the loss or traumatic experience into a new aspect of their personality/identity. No one expects to suffer a physical wound without some kind of scaring, yet it seems that psychologically, spiritually, this is exactly the expectation. Healing means learning to live with what is, not returning to what was.

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