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

One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several survivors become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?

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All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).

When Words Fail

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There are times, whether in therapy or in life, when words are inadequate. Listening to a story of heartbreak, sometimes my heart broke a little, too. If my patient watched me carefully (no failure on his part if he didn’t), he saw the tears in my eyes. Words would have intruded on what was happening between us. In a sense, the air, the touching contact of our eyes — the silence — did that which could be done.

This moment in US history cries — and cries out — for a response, but too many words have already been written and spoken. I am reminded of the composer John Cage, a wry and brilliant man. His most famous piece is entitled 4’33.” The composition consists entirely of silence. Quiet is appropriate for mourning, is it not?

Whether in words or in silence, compassion only goes so far. Expressed opinion only goes so far. But the emotional shards need removal, thus grieving comes first for most of us.

The work of therapy begins with the processing of pain. Sadness often robs us of motivation. Fear can paralyze. There are more catastrophes predicted than realized. Unrestrained anger turns you into the thing you hate. Rage is a motivator, but not easily prolonged or healthily maintained. No psychologist would urge you to try.

What then? Prior to counseling’s end you must change yourself if your goal is to change the world, whether one’s small personal globe or the bigger one.

Marcus Aurelius wrote,

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.

Like the wrestler we take a breath, search our ingenuity, and get up when we have been thrown to the mat.

A return to the fight is essential whether in therapy or life. Action — exerting control of what you can control — defeats the sense of helplessness.

In therapy and in life we are called to heroism. Courage is required to take on uncomfortable truths, beginning with those about ourselves. Difficult actions must follow. No heroism is needed to pour gasoline on your heart and light a match. Reason is your friend; emotion, not always.

Take responsibility and act responsibly.

Nor does one profit by the simple wish for a result, a passive hope for a change, or a patient wait for others to lift you. Freedom from your demons, in therapy and in life, must be won.

Our demons teach us who we are and what we are made of. Are they perhaps, in this way, our friends? Do we owe a peculiar debt to our challenges? You cannot think otherwise when you watch your 14-month-old child learn to master his universe, but you can when you have been decked. Regardless, whatever we want we must make it so.

Therapy is not an endeavor of a few weeks or months if the goal desired is substantial. Whether in therapy or in life you will succeed only if you persevere. Expect setbacks. Whether in therapy or in life, many make a fast start out of the gate, but fade before the stretch run. The finish line is not achieved and the problems then persist. Lasting dedication of your entire spirit triumphs over both temporary grievances and passing enthusiasms. No distractions are permitted for the true of heart.

Cato said:

When Cicero spoke, people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched. … Good judgment without action is worthless.

Whether in therapy or in life the voice is yours, the choice is yours, and the action must be yours.

The painting above is The Silence by Johann Heinrich Füssli. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Can a Therapist Know How You Feel? Must He Have Courage? Thinking About Essential Qualities in a Counselor

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Does a therapist “know how you feel?” No. How could he?

But he may still be able to help you even without such knowledge.

Why don’t I know how you feel? I am not you. I am not your age or perhaps your gender. We may not share the same faith. I wasn’t born in the same place under the same circumstances. My parents made more money or less than yours, lived with extravagance or pinched pennies. They survived the Great Depression well or badly or not at all; and so forth.

A counselor is not in your skin, so can’t know the sensations which comprise your life. Yet he can have some idea, perhaps even a good one. What might that idea be based on?

First of all, you are both human and have a certain set of shared, although not identical experiences. Speaking for myself, as a seasoned counselor I talked to thousands of people who told me what they thought, revealed how they reasoned, and explained how events influenced their mood. I therefore became familiar with the range of what is possible in reaction to an enormous number of circumstances. I also read text books, received instruction from teachers, and shared in the richness of emotion, perception, joy, and adversity found in stirring memoirs, novels, plays, and movies.

Despite all of this, I am open to surprise. An example: my father died abruptly in the year 2000 at the age of 88. I’d known he was mortal at least since the time of his heart attack when I was a boy. Prior to his death I counseled many people who were suffering from loss. Still, despite dad’s advanced age, his demise was shocking. Like the flick of a switch — the “here today, gone tomorrow” unreality was too true. Unexpected fatigue lasted for months, as though the life force taken from him had been emptied from me as well. Even now, years after this loss, I can’t say for sure “I know how you feel” if you tell me about the death of your father. Your relationship with him and the circumstances of each of your lives might cause me to rely more on imagination than something closer to your lived experience.

I would argue we cannot even recall how our own pain felt once the distress recedes into the moderate or distant past. Big events do not remain unaltered in the museum of the brain. Rather, they are like a photo faded by the sun. We need painful memories to diminish, which would otherwise leave us in a perpetual state of agony. Even splendid, heavenly recollections, if remembered with their original impact, would compromise our ability to attend to the most crucial elements of each new day. To some degree we must unconsciously forget or transform our life history.

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You might ask me: “How then can you help me grieve my loss if you can neither ‘know how I feel’ nor retain an unaltered remembrance of your own loss?” In several ways. I can listen to you and bear witness to your pain. I can be sympathetic. I can accept the emotions and stories you share: the varied combination of sadness, anger, exhaustion, and sense of separation from the world accompanying the death of a loved one. I can abide with you, acknowledge your suffering, and “be there” until it passes. If you will accept the comfort, our relationship will help to reattach you to life, even while you are grieving something that rends the same cord of attachment.

You will never be what you were before your loss, of course. But, you are more likely to heal if you share your grief. Holding it in or trying to “move on” too quickly — or shedding your tears only in private — can cause your sadness to pass by inches or not at all. Human contact in the aftermath of loss is crucial. A supportive spouse, friend or therapist can help. Time does the rest.

My sympathy for you doesn’t require I first possess knowledge of your internal life any more than enjoying milk requires a prior existence as a cow. Best not to say you know how another experiences his suffering. It is enough to tell him you care. Indeed, were you to fathom every detail of the emotions passing through another without caring, absolute understanding of his pain would count for nothing. Genuine concern — not some magical power to read another’s heart — is what counts. A patient will often forgive a therapist’s momentary failure to grasp his upset, but ought not to accept his indifference even if his knowledge of the patient’s emotional state is exact in every aspect.

The counselor carries an imperfect bag of tricks. Like the wounded soul who comes to treatment, he risks failing at the task he shares with his client, even if the courage demanded of the patient is greater. The therapist also assumes the frightful responsibility of caring for another with no certainty his effort will avoid tragedy, even if his burden and terror are less than the patient’s own.

The practitioner is always practicing. He must work to learn more and attempt to heal you no matter how much knowledge and experience he has. His therapeutic arsenal is never complete. Psychotherapy research is forever making new discoveries. Fortunately, if the therapist has the knowledge, dedication, and experience along with the courage to allow your heart to touch his, what he has tends to be enough.

In accepting you as a client, he risks injury to both you and himself. Why? In short, because you do matter to him. In treatment with the best healers, that is the one thing of which you can be certain, however much your relationship history causes doubt.

The top photo is Misty Morning by flagstaffotos.com.au/ The second image is Cirrus Clouds with 3-D Look by Simon A. Eugster. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Life is Overwhelming and Therapists Don’t Get It

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If you didn’t believe life was difficult — well, you probably would have given up on this blog long ago. Some of us imitate Sisyphus, the mythical king sentenced to push a bolder up a hill for eternity. Each time he reached high enough, the rock rolled down and he started over.

A few therapists sell you a potential future far beyond anything realistic. They are usually young, naïve despite their years, or genetically disposed to walk on the sunny side of the street. A handful are just lucky. The imagined life on offer is like being next door to a barbecue: you watch the smoke and smell the meat cooking. Your portion, however, will be a plate containing the sizzle without the steak.

Bon appétit.

Other counselors attempt to persuade themselves of reasons to be optimistic. Their effort to salve your wounds also treats their own. Whether self-aware or not, they make noise in the office to mask the bone crunching going on just outside, the better not to hear the screams.

This month I came upon two bloggers who endure the piercing splinters from those broken bones. I did not say “have endured.” Their pain is still alive.

They don’t so much triumph over the travail as persist despite it. Each offers realism over fairy tales, honesty over imagination, and survival over happy endings. This is the brutal truth from their perspective.

Read their posts and weep, but remember, they are still around to speak to you, write for you, and live for themselves and those about whom they care. Each one offers a meaningful life, not a walk in the park. One is a Jack of many trades, the other a Jill of a teacher.

Both are enraged at those who maintain that “everything happens for a reason.” Each finds reasons — not a reason — to persevere despite the things they carry. They do not offer you all the details of what caused the suffering, preferring you to focus on the emotional consequences.

Consolation in life requires acknowledgement of the extent of the injury, not platitudinous minimization. Invalidation of your misfortune by a friend or counselor is the therapeutic equivalent of passing gas. Such people would tell you the end of Hamlet, with bodies littered everywhere, is just a part of the “divine plan.”

We benefit by the presence of a faithful soul who often can do no more than stand by. A good therapist offers this service, not the disrespect of telling you that Prince (or PrincessCharming is in the parking lot waiting for you.

The male blogger is an “adversity and life strategist:” Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason/

The lady is an English teacher: The Lottery/

Witness the pain of these writers. In so doing you will be honoring your own.

The photo is called Melancholy by Andrew Mason (London, UK). It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Frozen Personalities: Why Talk Therapy Needs More Than Talk

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The time-honored treatment for psychological trauma is to uncover the wound, then gently expose it to the light. The “infection” must be drained, ever so slowly. Healing should follow.

Perhaps. Yet this method is rather like digging a hole, uncovering a buried skeleton, and raising it to earth. No revival is guaranteed. The bones still need to be fleshed out. The heart must beat. The creature needs to walk — away. Otherwise, the perimeter of the territory around the hole circumscribes the rest of his life. As the blunt, sometimes too impatient saying goes, you must “move on” — away from the place you’ve been stuck.

Movement is the key.

The patient will survive, but must live for the first time. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk describes the brain dysfunction produced by trauma: the victim is both more prone to agitation and less able to distinguish what is happening in the moment. Despite the chronological distance from injury, one’s life remains organized as if the danger were still present. Imagine an army after the war is over, forever in “stress mobilization” mode, ready for the next onslaught. The brain and body sense the world through the old, cracked lens of an ancient injury. Thus, rewiring the brain is now thought to be an essential treatment element for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The patient must become alive to the present. A number of methods might accomplish this, though research on how best to produce brain changes is in its infancy. Among the approaches suggested are neurofeedback, mindfulness meditation, yoga, and group theatrical or musical performance. These techniques engage the body, where so much of the damage is “felt,” almost as if it were written on the skin. Little is proven, but the field of recovery from trauma is buzzing with discussion.

In my own practice I treated those who took flight once the hurt wing was mended — and those for whom there was no bottom to the hole they had fallen into — pushed by an unkind hand.

For the latter group, the therapist’s office sometimes serves as both a refuge and a prison. One sees the dual function of the doctor’s consulting room for patients still afraid, wary, and worried. They continue to scan the environment for signs of the next disaster. Their lives are fraught with endless repetitions and imaginings of future grotesque events. The counselor can be like a magnet for them, offering a sometimes too tight embrace. The therapist becomes a metaphorical talisman in such cases, a rabbit’s foot one cannot do without. In effect, the therapy appointment itself is the only safe time in the only safe place; the shrink, the only safe person.

This is not enough. Both the doctor and the patient must recognize the goal is not only to grieve the trauma, but to reclaim a life; or to learn how to live for the first time. The participants in the therapy hour should leave rabbits’ feet to rabbits. They must recognize that, however lifelike, the client has not been living. He has been trapped in self-defeating routines. His life consists of traveling at considerable speed in a circle, always returning to the same place. Adventure, imagination, and joyful relationships are absent. The patient lives in his traumatized past or a fearful future, but not in the moment. Lacking the resilience to take on an imperfect world, he ventures nowhere.

Yes, you must talk about what happened. Yes, you must understand what happened. Yes, you must grieve what happened. But life, not an imitation, requires movement, change, and repeated abandonment of old ways for new ones. The therapist and her office, taken together, are like a stepping stone on your trip into the rough stream of remembrance: a place to land, but not a stopping place.

Nor is the shore the goal. The truth is, one never lands in a completely safe spot. Good therapy simply helps one become a better navigator in today’s waters, not yesterday’s or tomorrow’s.

You are safer not because of the place or the doctor, but because of yourself: newly designed, rewired, and outfitted, ready for the wind to catch your sails — ready for adventure even without the wind.

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The top image is called, Mr. Seafall’s Talk Button, by Mr. Seafall. The second photo is a Naval Ship of Brazil by the Brazilian Navy. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the Loss of Someone You Love

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When you have sustained a personal loss others provide consolation as best they can. If it is a death, there is a funeral to attend and a home to visit. If it is the breakup of a relationship or a marriage, there are phone calls, email, and visits, too. Plus, in almost all cases, an off-stage sigh of relief from the friend or relative who was not so close to the departed; relief that it didn’t happen closer to their heart and their home. But what is life thereafter for those who are most bereft?

You know some of it because you’ve lived it or read about it or seen it on stage: the tears and/or anger, the grieving process, etc. I’m not going into that which is well-known to most people, but rather some of the things you might not think about that happen when someone terribly close is gone; and how the life of one remaining behind can be changed. The items on the list may or may not happen to you, but they do happen, at least occasionally, for more than a few.

First, however, I want to emphasize that while we are not all the same in dealing with loss, the time it takes is usually measured in months, not years. That said, anniversaries of the death, holidays, and other significant events at which the departed is absent can be very tough, especially the first few times through. And the long shadow of an important life can reappear even years later, although without the emotional wallop, as a rule. Just to emphasize, this is something almost all of us get through, painful though it is. And, as you will see at the end of this essay, it can also be a thing from which you learn and grow.

Now to the less often discussed experiences that you might have while going through the grieving process:

  • Fatigue. Loss can be like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks the life out of you. You may feel tired, need more sleep, or simply have a general lack of enthusiasm and joy. The sadness is well-known, the spirit-draining weariness is less frequently discussed, but can go on for months.
  • Dullness of Thought. Whether you have a razor-edged brain or the more ordinary kind, you just might find that your usual sharpness is compromised. Perhaps you will be more forgetful, perhaps slower to process ideas, or just less in command of the executive functions that your mind typically does automatically.
  • Seeing the Loved One Who is not There. The days will pass and you will usually do the usual things. Let’s say you are filling up your car with gasoline at one of those petrol stations that also include a convenience store, filled with some snacks and sundries. As you are staring off into space while holding the gas pump, you see your deceased father walking into the store to pay for his gas. You literally can’t believe your eyes, and yet it seems to be your dad. You wait for him to exit and, indeed, it is a stranger. For other survivors, a similar circumstance occurs when they hear the voice that is not there. These are usually not hallucinations, but simply a part of the survival and grieving process.
  • Reaching for the Phone to Call the One Who is not There. Something happens in your life that would normally cause you to call, or email, or text the person who is out of your life. Maybe it is news of sports or a personal achievement, a surprising event, or perhaps you want some advice. A second later you realize that the contact will be unavailing. It is either impossible, if the person is deceased, or unwanted, if your former love no longer wants you.
  • Thinking about What the Deceased has Missed. My Uncle Sam, who died at age 50 in 1970, loved technology. He was creative and made things with the digital dexterity of an old-time watchmaker, although that was not his craft. He was the first person I knew to have a tape recorder (big reels in those days before cassettes and digital recording), a window air conditioner, and a Kodak camera that gave you a photo seconds after you took it, an advance we now take for granted. He was also a rabid fan of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. Over the years, as technology has progressed, I have occasionally thought that he would have loved to live today to see and use it all; maybe even to play a part in changing it for the better. And, in 2005, when the White Sox won the World Series, he would have been in heaven. Then again, maybe he was.
  • The Inability of Others Who are also Bereft to Help You Grieve. The most poignant and difficult examples of this feature of loss come in families where a parent has perished or fled to parts unknown. If the family still includes a loving parent, the children are used to going to that mom or dad with their problems, assuming the kids are still relatively young. But now they find that the person who provided consolation is himself or herself laid low by the very same loss from which the children seek relief. Part of the reason that therapists are useful is that they have not been struck by the identical calamity and therefore have the emotional energy and perspective that the remaining parent temporarily lacks. In a way, the children of parents who are also grieving the same loss have sustained a double blow: the literal absence of one caregiver and the altered capacity and emotional support of the other.
  • Changes in Continuing Relationships. The demise or permanent absence of someone important can change relationships among the survivors. When a parent dies who served to block family differences and ensure that “everyone would get along,” those submerged conflicts can burst out. It is a bit reminiscent of the multiethnic countries of Eastern Europe or the Middle East who were ruled by a dictator, until the dictator was overthrown and sectarian strife broke out. In some other families — those where favorites were played by the parents — I have occasionally seen the passing of the parents permit the siblings to get over their grudges and become closer now that no one is present to “stir the pot” to a boil, setting one child against another. Then there is the departure of a central figure in a group of friends to another city. His or her loss can, in effect, be the loss of the glue that held the group together; or, it can be the opportunity to reform the group and perhaps add someone new.
  • The Death of a Child. This is the terror that haunts every parent who ever loved his or her little flesh and blood. Again, each situation is different, but I will comment on two possible outcomes only. Some folks effectively deaden themselves to their surviving children or to any new child who is born. Consciously or unconsciously, they are steeling themselves against the possibility of still another emotional wound. Blame, too, can raise its ugly face. If one or the other member of the couple believes that his or her partner “caused” the death by action, word, or inaction, the marriage itself is at risk. The suicide of a young person too easily sets off this chain of events. Yet it must be said that many of us have also tried to deaden ourselves after the loss of a romantic love. Time usually softens our hearts and fuels the courage to try again, but not always.
  • Meeting Someone Like Your Lost Love. My wife and I have made wonderful friends in the University of Chicago’s four-year “Basic Program” for adults.  One is a man named John Kain. For Aleta, John is more than a friend: he reminds her of her father, who died in 1968 before I had a chance to meet him. She describes John and her dad as “the kind of men whom everyone wishes to have as a friend, the salt of the earth.” Thomas Henek’s funeral drew hundreds and I am convinced he must have been the genuine article: someone you could trust, a person who believed in fair play, and an unprejudiced man raised in a prejudiced home; a man who lived a principled life with strong, but not inflexible opinions, a sense of humor, and, above all, the kind of guy you wanted to have next to you in war-time (he was in the infantry in WWII) — a buddy who had your back. Aleta says that talking to John saddens her not in the least, but makes her feel good because of his likeness to her father. Perhaps you will be so lucky after someone essential passes away, that years later you can, in effect, benefit from his likeness in a new relationship such as hers with John.
  • The Loss of Your History. We’ve all read history books with dates, statistics, events, and conjecture about what caused those occurrences. Usually historians wait a bit before writing books, in part because one needs some perspective to understand how the puzzle pieces interlocked and how the dominoes fell against each other before they stopped. Such books have the advantage of distance, but unless they are written by someone, now usually aged, who lived that history, one tends to miss the authentic voice of the person who was there. Moreover, written history does not take the form of a novel, and is necessarily more concerned with the big picture than those particular lives in which you or I might be most interested. Oral and video history projects, as well as photographs and home videos keep some of that alive. Yet, inevitably, there are things one wishes to know too late, even if you have interviewed an older parent or relative and kept the recording in a safe place. There are always new questions about times that were very different from the time we live in today. Parents and grandparents also are typically our only link to the days before video cameras were in everyone’s pocket.
  • The Undead Feelings about the Dead. In the superb 1970 movie I Never Sang For My Father, starring Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas, the first voice we hear is that of Hackman as the son of Douglas: “Death ends a life. But it does not end a relationship.” Such a death, where issues between child and parent were never resolved, finds the survivor struggling to heal himself alone or with the help of others, but with no ability to talk things through with his deceased progenitor. As a therapist, it was often my experience that my patients didn’t even know the extent to which they were still haunted by the neglect, criticism, or frank abuse of a late mom or dad. Indeed, on occasion, someone who was victimized only felt “safe” after the perpetrator’s death. Only then could her conscious and subconscious defenses drop enough to permit exploration and full awareness of the mistreatment she suffered. To some degree, there was still a small child within her (metaphorically speaking) who was terrified of what would happen if she talked about the thing she knew was never to be mentioned.
  • The Things You Said or Didn’t Say. Conscience can be a troublesome trait. Your words or actions — the things you believe you ought or ought not to have done while your parent was alive or your lover was still with you — are now put in “your permanent record,” as teachers of my grade school era would threaten from time to time about in-school misbehavior. This can happen even if your parents or your lover weren’t the best, but made you feel that it was you who were at fault. You will see this played out realistically in the movie I just mentioned, I Never Sang For My Father. If you cannot find the movie, read the Robert Anderson play of the same name, upon which it was based.
  • Unsolved Mysteries. Regardless of how much time you spend in therapy or hours on your own considering and reconsidering the actions and words of someone you loved — romantically or otherwise — more than likely there will be elements of understanding that elude you. Realize that you need to observe limits on how much time you spend reflecting on your past. You must live the only life you have in the present, regardless of what has been lost. As the great black Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
  • Empathy. Though no one would choose to grow by experiencing loss, we tend to learn more from sadness than happiness, especially about the human condition. There is a depth that can come from loss and knowing that you can come out the other side. No life is clear sailing all the way. Losing a close friend, lover, brother, sister, or parent not only can enhance our ability to be kind to others, but also to be kind to ourselves. More than that, it silently speaks to the folly of believing that the accumulation of wonderful material things is more important than spending time with those you care about, while reminding us that those objects can be replaced, but a life cannot be.
  • Appreciation. A recent episode of the great TV comedy series, The Big Bang Theory, presented Bob Newhart as the ghost of the just-deceased “Professor Proton;” a man whose science show for children had inspired two of the program’s main characters, Sheldon and Leonard, to become physicists. Both of them had come to meet and know their childhood hero in his old age, and were troubled by his loss. Sheldon, when he is “visited” by the ghost, believes the Professor to have returned in the manner of Obie-Wan Knobe, the Jedi Master of the Star Wars films, who “lives” posthumously as a mentor and guide to Luke Skywalker. Sheldon is a brilliant but very self-involved and condescending young man, something the Professor is wise enough to identify. Proton responds to Sheldon’s grief with the suggestion that he begin to show appreciation to those still alive and around him while he can.

If there is any positive message in an ended love, I think the Professor had it right. The human heart does tend to heal, as the history of our shared humanity reveals. The danger is in ignoring the terrible fact that no one will be here forever. Loss reminds us to get on with life, to do what is most important, and to show and tell those we love just what they mean to us. Time sometimes is generous with us and gives us lots of opportunities. But Father Time does not put out printed departure schedules for the passengers on his train. We do not know when the wild and wonderful, up and down ride of life will end.

Don’t wait for the right time. The right time to show appreciation is right now.

The above photo is a U.S. Department of Defense photo essay taken by John Crosby. It is not about a permanent loss, but the emotion seemed to me to fit this topic. According to Wikimedia Commons, “U.S. Army Spc. Nathan Martin hugs his father a final goodbye before the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team’s Afghanistan departure ceremony on Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center, Indiana, Sept. 25, 2010. Martin, assigned to the Security Force Platoon, is saying goodbye to his loved ones one last time before deploying.”