After an injury or trauma of any kind, we often want to know how to heal. What must we do to regain our 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 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
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 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 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
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 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
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.
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