What Comes after Grieving? The Challenge of Saying “Yes” to Life

A formal, sarcastic, middle-aged woman, she was not an especially promising therapy candidate. Though very bright, one of her problems was her penchant for closing doors. She needed escape from the confined space of her life, but when possibilities arose, “no” was her usual answer. Even if no joy resided within her narrow neighborhood of known places, the dismissed opportunities existed outside her psychological comfort zone. Instead, she went to work, dutifully visited her adult children, saw her siblings on holidays, and spent lots of time reading and doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku, at which she was adept. Her life was safe, her job secure, her unhappiness guaranteed.

The lady thought she had all the answers, but her sadness suggested otherwise. Widowed for some time, her muted grief could be traced to guilt over failing an abusive husband, not his absent kindness. Until the grieving was completed, however, no manner of persuasion convinced her she was now free. Her fortress against hurt from others – a shelter of  fixed routine, avoided chances, and minimized risk – was self-created.

A luxury room in hell is still in a place you won’t like.

Some therapy clients feel as though the past has stained them indelibly, made them unacceptable. Or that they are tainted, marked “beyond repair” soon after birth. They believe unacceptability pervades everything they are, everything they touch. My patient was such a one.

The therapist faces many challenges here. He must, of course, win the trust of someone untrusting, accept the sarcasm and negativity, understand the part “attitude” plays in defending the individual, and realize the presence of an injured soul under the porcupine spines. A grieving process will take the time it takes, until past losses recede and guilt is shed, the stain less visible. At some point the patient must begin to reenter the world or, perhaps, enter for the first time.

A scary thing.

Life is like a book we write in indelible ink. We can’t erase the past, even though some imagine the ink is still wet and marks everything they touch with words written far back: words like bad, selfish, mean, stupid, and unattractive. Those who think this way believe the pejoratives live inside of them. They attribute superhuman powers to new acquaintances. People will, they are sure, quickly read the words through the transparency of face and body.

The book, however, has many blank pages left. The virgin parchment remains to be filled in, as pristine for you as for another. What will you write? Yes, you possess a history, but how much of it must you endlessly reread and then repeat and recopy on the unfilled paper? How much of the book’s future story must tell the same tale only with different people?

The empty spaces ahead are untainted, pure. If you keep looking back, you will keep getting the wet ink on your fingers, your forearms, your future. The new leaves will be smudged. Thus, the lady with whom I began this story anticipated an unsatisfying, injurious path, closed the gate to it, and only accomplished a reliving of her past in places offering no novel possibilities.

She needed a change of clothes, a shower, even a fresh start at work or new friends; maybe without her siblings or with a changed attitude toward them.

If you are like this patient, too quick to say “that won’t work or “I can’t do that,” well, as the wry aphorism tells us, “If you do what you’ve done, you’ll get what you’ve gotten.”

The art of therapy is, in part, the art of managing the client’s transition from shedding the past to his trying out a new version of himself: a kind of gradual debut of a person partially transformed. Some of the transformation happens in the working through of past injuries, but much develops, too, in taking on the world again. There is danger if you ignore your history, but an equal amount if you don’t venture out.

Each of us carries some version of the book of our life’s saga. For those least fortunate, the incomplete autobiography is heavy, filled with the weight of tragedy. Others own a lighter volume, but not free of disappointments, mistakes, and the harm nature or fate or other people have inflicted.

The past is a place for reluctant therapeutic visits or fond memories. In the middle of life, however, many blank pages still need filling.

The patient I mentioned eventually ventured out of those phases – those pages – already read and reread, lived and relived. She entered the world of the living again, where history is made. She noticed anew a man she’d known for a few years, someone who admired her from a distance. My client took the risk of taking him seriously, instead of treating him with her standard defense: a witty, but sarcastic distancing.

If any of us are to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we must first leave the house in search of it. We remake ourselves, in part, by taking tentative steps, not by waiting until we are fully changed. Change is in the action. Change is never finished, always moving, forever incomplete.

Perhaps it is too much to say my client found her innocence again, but in a way she did, and the joy of a second first love. She and her admirer married.

Life does not always permit a happy ending, nor do we get to write our whole story free of fate jostling our hand as we move the stylus.

Still, the blank pages beckon.

The top photo is called, Afraid of Water, by Jaka Ostrovršnik

18 thoughts on “What Comes after Grieving? The Challenge of Saying “Yes” to Life

  1. Thank you for this profound blog. It really hits home. So hard sometimes to push through and “venture out.” It’s so much easier to isolate and stay within my comfort zone. But for some of us the future is wide open to new possibilities if we allow them. Just have to figure out with my therapist how to set aside those lies i constantly tell myself about myself, in order to allow those new opportunities to happen. “Change is in the action.” So true but can be so very hard. Really appreciate your heartfelt blogs and impatiently wait for them each week! Thank you Dr Stein!

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    • I found that we don’t necessarily have to stop the negative self-talk in order to venture forth. The assumption is, of course, that we do. To some degree one can ignore the chatter and jump into the pool. Speaking of pools, think of it this way. We know the pool is going to be cold and we know we will feel the shock of the temperature change, yet we jump in anyway. Difficult, I know, however easy it is to say. Good luck to you, Kate. Thanks for your kind words and your comment.

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  2. A beautiful article.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much…a beautiful, wise, and for me, very timely post. As every inch of me tries to fight this end of email contact with my therapist, at the same time, and in the context of the difficult ruptures that have occurred recently, my self loathing has increased greatly – or perhaps my awareness of it has. My sense of self feels like it is defined by particular words and memories that have been marked indelibly on my mind – words like disgusting and intrusive. I have a renewed and invigorated ‘need’ to be reassured, to be told I am loved, worthwhile, that someone is proud of me. I want explicit encouragement and in its absence I am defended, and self protecting. I know I have to effect my own rescue, and that I have the ‘tools’, but it is very hard and very painful – when I am not simply numb, that is. I am getting there, but grieving, when I allow myself to, what I won’t have in terms of contact and ‘tangible’ reminders and reassurance….thank you for this, again. I can try and move things forward and grasp a new way of working in the therapy room. As for changing life outside the therapy room, that is even more complex, and not solely within my control…..sorry, I am writing a self pitying essay !

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    • No apologies necessary. If I know anything, it is that you are persistent. You’ll get there. Perhaps my response to Kate, above, belongs here, too. Thanks for your kudos.

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  4. Gerald, I read what you write each week and so often your words make me think and reconsider my life and/or actions. This essay was both timely and powerful. Thanks, Warmly, Nancy Akerly Friend of Mary Dykstra

    Liberty Grove Paper Arts Sister Bay, WI 54234 http://www.libertygrovepaperarts.com

    >

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    • I am especially impressed by your six word last name, Nancy! 😉 Well, we both have the great good fortune of Mary’s friendship, a person as precious as they come. If I know Mary, the coincidence also says some good things about you. Thanks for your praise, Nancy. I’m glad what I write has meaning for you.

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  5. Death, in a way, is so much easier than divorce. I love this blog-because almost a decade out, and even after finding my magic Prince, I still grieve. To accept this grief means I grapple with it, but to allow ‘chai’-‘life’s new energy, means I coach myself in ridding my soul of the gullt-and venture, with courage, along the path of those unwritten empty pages you bring forth here. IT AIN”T EASY! Thankfull, I have had good therapy-and this blog confirms just what good therapy can mean. Thank you.

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    • You are welcome, Joanne. Not many free lunches in life, that’s for sure. But think of it this way: your last 10 years demonstrates your resolve, your courage, and your success. Continued good wishes, Joanne.

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  6. I loved the analogy as life being a book written with indelible ink and many blank pages yet to be written. I think about the times I dwell on some negative experiences from the past. I don’t reread books or watch movies again I have seen, but sometimes ruminate on past occurrences. Why?!? Hopefully I can remember your life analogy and break away from looking back in shame, remorse, embarrassment and/or regret. I think this takes quite an effort to be conscious, and practice to become habit. Thank you for sharing this post. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are welcome, elizabetcetera. The answer to the question your raise (why the looking back) may be less important than breaking the habit. Partly, the more we do things, the more they take on a life of their own, thus the need to break habits. Yes practice, practice. Keep up the hard work!

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  7. Beautiful, inspirational, hopeful! Love your metaphors: They elucidate your testimony of personal transformative growth.

    “Each of us carries some version of the book of our life’s saga. For those least fortunate, the incomplete autobiography is heavy, filled with the weight of tragedy. Others own a lighter volume, but not free of disappointments, mistakes, and the harm nature or fate or other people have inflicted.”
    ~ So true! Yet, even the “lighter volume” can have chapters still “heavy…with the weight of tragedy.”

    I keep moving forward. Thanks, Dr. Stein ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for your praise, Rosaliene. When I was doing therapy I was forever thinking of how to say things differently, use metaphors, give examples, in order to help the process along. As far as moving forward, I’m very glad you do so, Rosaliene. I’m sure you will continue and benefit those around you in so doing.

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  9. Are those pages in the middle of our story really blank? I sometimes wonder. As a fiction writer, I know that the events I set in motion and the choices the characters make in the beginning of the story affect the ending. Yes, the character can change, but not so much that it is unbelievable. The fun part of fiction writing (as opposed to real life) is that I can go back and revise the past in order to influence the future. George Eliot’s inspirational words that, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been,” is a popular quotation floating around the internet. It sounds wonderful but gives me pause. We’d all love this to be true, but is it? Sometimes our childhood, our traumas, our relationships, and our choices cast a shadow on those blank pages. Perhaps the answer is to stop writing that autobiography and begin a sequel.

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    • You raise an interesting question, Evelyn; one that has been thought about by scientists/philosophers and fiction writers, too. As it happens I just finished reading “Story of Your Life,” an excellent sci-fit short story that comes at this question from an unexpected angle. To take your question to an extreme, I should start off by saying that a therapist must believe in free will in order to be a therapist. Otherwise he’d be a charlatan (a kind of contemporary snake oil salesman). Such a counselor would know that the patients life would work out the way it would work out whether he provided treatment or not. The best research data, however, provides empirical support that some forms of therapy for some conditions produce results equal or better than psychotropic medication. Those facts, however, don’t solve the problem you raise. If you believe everything is determined by some combination of genetics and environment, then it is possible also to believe we are simply “enacting” a predetermined script without knowing we are the actors. Or, to keep my metaphor of a “book of life,” that all the pages are already completely written, even though we don’t know it. So, in daily life, we’d believe we make decisions which would feel like “our” decisions, even though we’d have no real choice in the matter, because our brain was operating in a such a way as there would be no other possibility for us – no other way we could think, feel, or behave. The jury is out on the scientific and philosophical argument. I personally chose, when I was in practice, to honor what looked to me like an enormous struggle for a better life in many of the patients I saw. If they and I were fooled, then I guess we were. And, in my case, still am fooled by my belief in our capacity to write some part of the blank pages. Even, as I hope you and some others understood me to say, to “turn over a new leaf.”

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