Grappling with grief ~ small steps towards equilibrium

The strategies and activities we figure out to help us through difficult times are likely to vary enormously from one person to another.  In this article I outline what helped me and became an important part of sorting things out.  Perhaps my list may give you some ideas about how to find what works for you. 

I went through a phase of buying the daily newspaper, which is not something I'd normally do.  Newspapers can be a recipe for depression, but they do also contains some really good articles.  I'd skim through the pages and only stop and read things that caught my interest and imagination.  This was very helpful in getting in touch with what had meaning for me, of defining points of focus.  If the content of an article had a particular charge to it I cut it out and put it to one side.  Sometimes I found that the content of a story unexpectedly stayed with me for days, and I'd go back through the papers to find it and cut it out.

I found that the stories mostly fell into three groups: stories about people I warmed to, who often had achieved something of benefit to others and raised my hopes about people in general.  Another file featured stories about nature and environmental successes.  Both sets of stories helped me feel better about the world we live in. There certainly were some wonderfully inspiring stories there.

The biggest file was a collection I called 'Conflict and Abuse'.  It contained stories about people who'd hit the bottom and somehow survived, even made good from it; stories of successful conflict resolution at both ends of the scale; stories about people who were still staggering with the consequences of inter-personal strife; stories of both victims and perpetrators of crime; of people who'd left cults and had to completely rebuild their lives...  The list was endless.

At one point I attempted to create an overview of what that big file contained, and I looked carefully at the photographs of these people.  One the whole they were as ordinary as anyone you could imagine, and many of them, like me, were middle-aged and just trying to get on with their lives.  I could identify with the man whose one point of routine in his day was brushing his teeth.  I felt privileged that I'd come from a background of being much loved by my parents which it seemed he'd never experienced.  I could identify with the woman who'd left a cult and in discarding her headscarf had waited for God to strike her down with a thunderbolt.  I could identify with the gifted science student who had a breakdown after an inter-departmental row over authorial rights which had nothing to do with her, and after two years still couldn't read a book.  I could identify with the business owner who for years fought to clear his name after he was wrongly convicted of causing the death of one of his staff.  I could identify with the mother of the woman who had died who went away from the courtroom when he finally cleared his name and spent the rest of the day vomiting.  I could identify with the three white collar men who were each on trial for different offences who gave each other companionship in the holding cells during their trials who never discussed with each other whether they were guilty or not.  They didn't judge each other just provided each other with companionship.  That's a powerful thing.

That's what I got from each of those articles.  All of us had in our way experienced ruin, and each of us was human, with the basic human needs for self-expression and companionship.  Each of us had to battle to find new ways in life.  Compassion means to suffer with, and this I did and still do feel, strongly.  We are not alone.  I didn't feel I needed to rush out and do anything about it, just read what was there and filed it away.

The taboo of speaking about suffering - and breaking through it: It was all very well reading about other people's suffering, but what about my own?  There seems to be a very ingrained taboo in most of us about expressing deep personal suffering.  For one thing it upsets those who hear it; it seems to threaten them in some way, and for another, it may make us feel more vulnerable for having done so.  But it's more than that.  I had a very memorable dream at that most difficult time which was of being in a land  in which everyone was experiencing unimaginable cruelty and suffering.  There was someone there whom I knew slightly but we did not acknowledge each other.  The only way anyone was ever able to get out was to make a pact never to tell what had happened to them there.  So this forbidden zone in me was very real at a deep level, and very likely in many others.  Taken as a metaphor at a different level, it shows that no one can fully understand what we have been through, unless perhaps they have been through something similar themselves, but even then, what they feel about and with us, are going to be essentially their own feelings.  Ultimately we are alone, and these experiences are solitary.  But I believe it's important to try to convey at least some of it, to break through our own fear of doing so.

Therapists and counsellors:
This underlines the importance of  getting impartial help in the form of a counsellor or therapist.  I've found this a big help even though I managed without this for about ten years longer than I need have done.  There were reasons for that which I've outlined elsewhere, and I do want to emphasise the helpfulness of being able to unburden oneself to someone whose job it is to listen.  This protects our friends and family from taking the full brunt of our troubles which can be too much for them.  They've got their own lives to get on with.  Speaking the words does have a physical effect.  I used to tremble uncontrollably from fear and distress, even if I was talking to someone with whom I felt completely safe.  I don't understand this but there it was.  Gradually that has subsided, but it's taken a very long time for that improvement to be achieved. 

As I've said elsewhere, writing to 'download' difficult experiences can be an immense help.  I have read that the process of creating a coherent story about a traumatic series of events can be very helpful in beginning to let those events begin to take their proper place in our memories, which is in the past.  The whole problem with trauma is that it continues to intrude into the present, so this approach is definitely worth considering.  That is to some extent what I've done with this series of writings.  However, I've only been able to begin to do this effectively quite recently, and while I was in the thick of things I simply couldn't manage it.  I tried, but each time had to set it aside as it was too upsetting.  The aspect of it that was helpful was externalising all that I could remember about what went wrong, just as it crossed my mind.  There was a great deal of it.  I didn't bother trying to be coherent, just wrote and wrote and wrote whatever crossed my mind.  I was well aware that I'd been continually going over these details in my mind, I think in a defensive way.  I wanted to be sure I never made the same mistakes again.  Writing them down meant I didn't have to remember them - I could go and read them later - if I wanted to, which by and large I haven't.  What a relief not to have to remember, remember, remember... 

I go through phases of writing my dreams down.  Often they provide an interesting parallel reflection of what is going on in my waking life.  Sometimes they show up parts of it that are missing.  Sometimes I find elaborate symbolism which provides the answer to questions that have been perplexing me which I would never have thought of myself.  Sometimes they seem simply to be a composting process of what has been going on for me during the day.  Particularly menacing dreams may hold information that is useful, but more often seem to be the result of an over-wrought brain.

My comment is that while I've found dreams to be outstandingly insightful and helpful on occasion, when I was most unwell they provided more than I could cope with.  At such a time writing them down may prove helpful as a downloading mechanism, so that dreams can be acknowledged and then set aside.  It's important not to go on adding to our own load of things we have to deal with.  Take it easy.

I've talked a lot about writing.  Some people find keeping a diary helpful.  I prefer to use a loose leaf binder.  The advantage of that is that I can easily discard pages that are no longer wanted or needed.  The disadvantage is that I have to remember to date and file new pages.  You'll know what suits you best. 

I've talked elsewhere about the books which I found helpful, and these can be accessed via the label index to the right of the screen or in the article "Books: recommended titles".  On the whole they are either by or about people who have navigated similar difficulties.  These are the ones that helped me.  You'll have or perhaps develop your own list. 

Contact with nature:
I've talked about the significance of this for me a number of times.

Gardening is not only a practical help in providing some food but also a creative outlet.  It's also a source of enduring reassurance - nature has it's own ways, mechanisms and rhythms which are largely independent of me: I put seeds in the ground, but it's the spark of life in the seed that does the work of germination and defines what it will grow into and produce.  The ground and all that it contains does the work.  I have a very minor role of pottering about supervising things: weeding, trimming and watering.  I love that.  And it's always changing.  Lovely!  And unexpected - even better!  All this is independent of politics and interpersonal relationships, religion and all the rest of it, for which I am supremely grateful! 

Pets can have a similar role: They provide companionship and interest and our problems and hang-ups are largely irrelevant to them.  The dog still needs to be taken for a walk, the cat continues to jump on our lap, and so on.  I remember once, years ago, when our pet rooster bit me crossly on the leg on a day when I was feeling particularly disgruntled myself.  The rooster didn't care about my feelings and moods - he had his own.  I remember being surprised, and it did help me come out of myself a bit. 

Re-connecting with others:
At a time of intense suffering there is nothing left over to put into relating to anyone who is outside our immediate circle and direct day to day needs, but gradually as thing settle down a little, there is more room for other sorts of contact. 

I've mentioned a number of times how isolated I've been and how I felt somehow different to most other people I knew.  I decided I needed to explore more about who I really am in a practical context, and this meant finding out more about my extended family.  I found this incredibly worthwhile.  I had thought that not only I was 'different' but that my whole immediate family were similarly so.

In the process of getting in touch with the extended family and exploring back over three to four generations what I found was that we were all very much a product of those who had gone before us; various family traits were easily found which were in common, and yes, there are certain threads of difficulty that came to light, not necessarily the ones I expected, but there all the same.  I made a whole big project of it, assembling details and photographs, and collecting anecdotes.  It was fascinating and by no means complete.

A word of caution however: if you consider doing anything similar, it's no easy trail.  All families have their sensitivities and troubled pasts, and these need to be treated with great respect, both with regard to establishing a level of trust and the need we all have for a degree of privacy.  And enquiries may not be welcomed.  I was immensely fortunate to find the Welcome Mat and considerable courtesy extended to me, but this isn't necessarily the case.  Also, there may be surprises which can be upsetting.

On the whole, though, it was immensely worthwhile, in establishing my heritage and with it a sense of kinship and belonging which I hadn't had before.  The ice of my isolation was cracking in all directions!  This was a very good thing. 

Self expression:
Little by little the pressure eases.  Like a body of water it will seem to wash back with renewed force some of the time, but overall is likely to gradually ebb.  I've found that self-expression has been a vital component in recovering my ability to function more normally, and with it my well-being.

Inspiration for what we need in life can come from unexpected quarters: last year I watched Adam Lambert sing his way through the American Idol season and was vastly impressed by the confidence with which he expressed himself and the strength of feeling he was happy to let flood out with his voice.  I thought, most of us aren't like that.  Most of us don't let ourselves express a particle of that.  Conclusion: not good enough.  Further conclusion: might be a good idea to start to take a bit more of a risk myself.

I'd done lots of good work with exploring contacts and communication, but had so much more inside which I knew was valuable and which remained concealed.  That was the start of the Rushleigh Chronicles, so, thanks Adam, for the inspiration!  And here I am hopefully passing on a little of that myself.  Take small steps and I'm sure you'll find you can do it too!  

To go to the next article click this link:
Forging a way from trauma to wholeness

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