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On the Path from Loss to Renewal
~ By R. Benyamin Cirlin, L.C.S.W.
To speak about grief and loss is to approach mystery.
Who among us can really grasp what it means to lose a loved one? Who among us can really fathom what it means to never see, touch, smell or feel a beloved ever again? We are assaulted and overwhelmed by the death of those for whom we care. Reality creeps up on us as a mugger in a dark alleyway and we are defenseless and out of control. Is it any wonder that death induces such intense fear and insecurity?
Coping with loss is ultimately not about understanding, but about responding; it is not about gaining an intellectualized, rational explanation, but about finding a way to continue walking in a world of unanswered questions in spite of our wounds and emotional limps.
For more than twenty-five years, I have spent most of my working life in the presence of people attempting to cope with loss. My clients have faced the loss of loved ones from illness and disease, suicides and homicides. They have faced both timely and untimely deaths. I have witnessed the grief over mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, husbands, wives, partners, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts, uncles and cousins. I have been present for those grieving babies who failed to survive their journey out of the womb, and for those coping with the death of a 95 year old relative who succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. There have been so many similarities in all of these losses, yet so many differences. Each grief is as unique as a fingerprint.
I can not count the number of times I have heard over the years the following sentiment: "I can not survive this pain - it is too great. This darkness is too heavy. I will never truly smile again." People walk into my office having deposited hopefulness outside my door. And thus I am often asked: "how do you do this work? Aren't you constantly depressed?"
It would be a lie to say that I never feel sad. Those clients who have witnessed my tears over the years know that to be true. Yet it is also true that I rarely feel depressed by my work. In fact, I often feel enriched and energized by the struggles I witness. I am blessed to be in the presence of builders, human beings valiantly striving to reconstruct lives of meaning and purpose on the edge of the abyss. Construction work is dirty and messy: you can't build in formal attire. But for those of us who are willing to get grimy and sweaty, building is possible. The hope deposited at my door does not disappear. It waits to be reacquired in a newer, deeper fashion.
In order to understand this process of reacquiring hope, I would like to share a story told by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach titled "The Great Fixer."
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The Yoga of Grief and Change
New Year’s began with high hopes: the hour had finally arrived for me to get in good physical shape. My fifteen minute daily routine of stretching was not doing the job of relieving some of the muscle tightness I was experiencing and I knew that I needed to dedicate more time and energy if I truly desired to achieve more flexibility in my body. This knowledge had long circulated in my brain, but now I needed to act if I truly desired to change.
I began attending a local yoga studio several times a week, and initially the experience was invigorating. My self-consciousness at being a novice, while present, did not significantly interfere with my practice. I looked at my how my mat neighbors were embodying the poses and did the best I could to copy them. I felt proud of myself for following through on a long held aspiration and told myself that if I kept this up I would surely see some desired changes in several months.
After several classes I began experiencing pain in my hamstrings and hips, and after one class I asked the instructor if this pain was a normal part of the practice. He nodded yes, and said that most beginners complain of such aches and he encouraged me to keep practicing and to go with the process. After several more weeks the pain did not resolve, and I began to notice that my experience of the yoga class had changed. A silent voice suddenly appeared within me and began asking me many fear filled questions while I was on the mat: When will this pain go away? What if it never goes away? Am I doing the right thing by following this practice? What if I am forced to give up other activities I enjoy because this pain will always be with me? Maybe I should leave the class right now and give up on this dream because it is just too difficult?
Thinking about these questions on my way to work one morning I began to smile. I realized that they appear in my office on close to a daily basis. Many people who desire to change because of unhappiness with a career, a relationship or a troubling personal habit, and many people who are forced to change because of the death of a loved one, are assaulted by hordes of questions. Suffering leads us to look at ourselves and to ask and consider where we have come from and where we are going. My clients have been stretched by life, and need to find ways to both live with and to heal their pain, fear and vulnerability. Sometimes change comes slowly and finding a way to live with the questions is a key therapeutic challenge.
Many years ago I read Alan Wheelis’ How People Change and it remains a book close to my heart. In it he delineates, often in a very personal manner, the path of change, and states that “the sequence is suffering, insight, will, action, change.” Wheelis is especially illuminating in talking about we human beings often confuse those forces and situations in our lives which objectively and realistically constrain us (and thus cannot change), and those forces that result from our own personalities and perceptions ( which indeed are subject to change) if our view of ourselves changes).
Wheelis writes: “In every situation, for every person, there is a realm of freedom, and a realm of constraint. One may live in either realm. One must recognize the irresistible forces, the iron fist, the stone wall – must know them for what they are in order not to fall into the sea like Icarus - but knowing them, one may turn away and live in the realm of one’s freedom.”
That is what the heart of change is about – discovering our realistic realms of freedom. What is possible for us do now with our lives in spite of the fact that that we have been hit by the “iron fists” of bodily deterioration, divorce, and death? My body was giving me a message to seek help and discover the source of my pain, and ultimately I discovered a minor medical condition that required some adjustments in my life. I had to learn to live with a new expression of the “iron fist” and find a way to move around the “stone wall.”
The road from suffering to change is not an easy one for most people challenged by a core level loss. Spending time living with the fruits of insight, struggling to find the will to change, and coping with the fears of taking action can be difficult. Communing with the many questions that arise while on “the mats of our lives” is frequently a scary and lonely process. Nonetheless, we can change and discover remaining realms of freedom.
I see that process happen on a regular basis. There has been nothing more gratifying for me as a therapist than the experience of offering support, encouraging perseverance, and witnessing how so many of my clients have found ways to move into new “poses” that allow for greater meaning and satisfaction. The iron fist often does not disappear, but perceptions about its power and influence radically change, and that can makes a huge difference.
~ By R. Benyamin Cirlin, LCSW and Miriam Benhaim, Ph.D
- Grief and the Myth of Closure - 01/14/13
- The Four Things that Matter Most: A Book about Living - 02/01/08
- Hearing the Music - 10/30/07
- Comparative Suffering Shopping - 12/17/07
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