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The Healer’s Wound: Grief Postponed by Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD

Saturday, 08 Mar 2014 07:36

To Tell the Truth –

The Healer’s Wound: Grief Postponed 

Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD 

grief_by_firesign24_7

~~~~~~~~~~

There are truths we can only tell through story. 

                                          — Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership 

Everyone has a story.  It is important and precious and unique.  For the teller, it is the most important story in all the world.  It is the story of personal creation.  It tells the world who he is and how he got to be that way.  It is a self-descriptor with a back story.  No other person owns that identical story.  No other person has ever lived that story or will ever have it again.  It makes the teller completely unique for all time.

The story needs to be told.  Pressure to tell is always present.  The story is ever-changing, evolving.  The teller requires that others know and understand so that they can offer respect and affirmation.  So that the teller senses his own worth and dignity.  The self is reflected in others.  The story provokes a response.  The response affirms the teller’s self-identity.  We feel good when others seem to understand and appreciate who we are.  This is part of self-esteem, self-respect, pride in one’s self.

Death always makes a story.  It is a hard job to tell that story, to tell the truth.  Death is a wound, including a narcissistic wound.  In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with himself, with his own reflection in a spring.  Narcissism is the sometimes excessive love of the self.  Other people are not loved for their own sake as independent human beings with their own goal-directedness.  They are loved for the purpose of confirming the value and cohesiveness of the narcissist’s self.  Briefly, the survivor is outraged that the loved one committed abandonment and presumed to incite grief pain in such a wholesome, splendid, decent human as himself.  The dead loved one causes rage because he will no longer be present to confirm the high value of the bereaved.1   Perception is reality in the mind of the narcissist.  Rage results.

The survivor has feelings.  Not all of those feelings are nice and loving.  To tell them is to feel some embarrassment and guilt.  Anger is especially difficult to tell because of the instant guilt that rebounds.  Anger often provokes guilt.  Guilt can intensify the anger.

In our culture, anger is not a favored emotion.  It appears – but only appears – to devalue the owner, especially when it is directed against someone who is already dead.  This is like a closed and sealed jury box for the angry survivor.  There is no escape from bereavement without some degree of anger at some time.  To talk about it is to risk disapproval, disrespect, and disgrace.  Outwardly, it feels undignified, humiliating, childish.

Fear is also difficult to tell.  Everyone fears death in some way: fear of the dying process itself, fear of helplessness and flashbacks and insanity, fear of aloneness and abandonment, fear for those being left behind, fear of what might come after death.  The teller takes no pride in his fears.  Although fears form a distinct part of his identity, they do not demonstrate satisfaction in his achievements.  On the contrary, they point to an imperfection, or so it is perceived by the teller.  To talk about the imperfect is to show an apparent – but only apparent – shortcoming, a weakness, a fault in the self.  We are not supposed to be fearful of natural, certain, expected, planned-for life events.  To express this fear can be dangerous to our self-image as it is reflected back to us by others.  Fear is also a source of anger – and hence, guilt – toward the person who provoked it.

There is a lot of incentive to postpone or hide grief.  Ambivalence can be intense: to tell or to withhold?  The temptation to defer the telling is sometimes almost irresistible.  All the alarming What-If’s suddenly, momentarily, take center stage.  “What would others think of me if they knew my anger, narcissism, and fears?  Would they abandon me in my time of greatest need?”  Or maybe others would simply scoff, change the subject, or pronounce that impossible “snap out of it.”  Postponement is clearly defensive.  It is self-destructive in the name of self-defense.  But is defense really necessary?  Would the teller disintegrate at such responses?  Highly unlikely. 

Also, everyone hides by lies sometimes, lies to the self as well as others.  Thorough self-examination is always painful and disturbing.  In this case, self-awareness isn’t fun.  We are not inclined to confront ourselves very often.  It is demanding and stressful work.  However, avoidance does not change the liar’s innermost truth.  As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

If the telling is postponed, the healing is also delayed.  That is self-destructive.  Grief postponed is pain prolonged.  We cannot get better at something we never do.2   With the delay comes the greater danger of sickness, both somatic and psychic.  In a sense, postponement is like a self-fulfilling prophesy because the teller knows intuitively that it is poor judgment and unhealthy.

And yet, death changes us also for the better and stronger.  The story of death includes not only embarrassing feelings but also positive growth for the teller.  He is the survivor.  He can be proud of that, and relieved.  He has met the challenge and dared to move forward.  Even as he is changed by loss, his worth and dignity are affirmed.  His strength is revealed.  His ability to grow is evident, unmistakable, and admirable.  His full range of emotions – socially acceptable and not so acceptable – leads to a gradual transformation.  It is the creation of a new level of maturity.  He looks on life from a newly found height…and depth.

All of us change.  Death literally changes us.3   Death always makes a story because it hurts so much.  “There can be a darkness so dark that it extinguishes any attempt to light a light.”4   It brings us to tears, even the strongest of us who never cry.  The healer is always wounded – if not now, then soon.  All of us experience loss at some time, from time to time.  There is virtually no such person as a healer without a wound.  Do not bother to search.  Loss is inevitable.  The story must not be deferred too long.  It must be told.  We miss the best chances for growth if we keep our eyes shut.  Only the telling brings true relief.  The telling is the necessary dream because others are our primary source of comfort, courage, nurture, and wellness.  Ultimately, there is nothing more important in life than human connection.  “Ultimately, [love] is the only voice that matters.”5

Psychologist J. William Worden writes, “Grief is really a social process and is best dealt with in a social setting in which people can support and reinforce each other in their reactions to the loss.”6

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks adds that the traditional Jewish practice of “Shiva” (or “sitting shiva”) can be especially helpful in the beginning phases of grief after loss.  Shiva is the ritual of the mourners in the seven days after the loved one has been buried.  “Bereavement forces us in on ourselves.  The week of Shiva, during which we are visited by neighbors and friends and rarely left alone, forces us out of ourselves and back into the land of the living.  It helps mend the broken bonds of relationship.  Shiva is a form of reintegration, a radical insistence that it is not in and by ourselves that we are able to restore the meaningfulness of life, but in the company of others…For Judaism, hell is the absence of other people, solitary confinement in the prison of the self…Mourning in Judaism is a process of healing the fractures caused by suffering and loss…”7, 8

Poet Langston Hughes asks about postponement: “What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?  Or fester like a sore – and then run?  Does it stink like rotten meat?  Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet?  Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.  Or does it explode?”9   He suggests that deferral can be a distasteful, disturbing, and even dangerous strategy.

The whole story needs a voice.  It is the story of the self, irreplaceable and precious.  It is a truth that can only be told through story.  We have a need to tell the truth.  It is human and humanly, handsomely imperfect.  Uniquely handmade.  It’s OK to be imperfect.  Everyone is.  That is part of what makes each of us different from all the rest.  The story draws a matchless, unequalled, incomparable word picture.  It should be told before it explodes.  It must be shared.  It can show positive growth.  We are not alone.  Everyone has a story.  Everyone.  Even the grief healer.

“We suffer so that we can grow.  The bad in our lives is an invitation to the good…A world without suffering would be one in which we never needed to come to anyone’s aid, never needed to make sacrifices of our own for the sake of someone else.  Without pain, there is no gain.”10   A time of pain and troubles can bring us closely together in empathy and compassion, in sincerity and genuineness, in patience, forgiveness, and grace.  We may be at once – at the very same time – both the wounded and the healer.  We can give, even as we take.  That is meaningful.  That is beautiful.  That makes a difference.

To tell the truth is richly rewarding.  The benefits are health and growth.  They are courage, confidence, and character.  They are moral strength and energy.  They are the music beneath the noise.  They are the firm bonds of relationship.  They are the voice of inner freedom.  They are the herald of peace. 

Peace, sometimes hiding in plain sight.

——————————

References and Notes:

1. Heinz Kohut, MD, “Value Judgments Surrounding Narcissism,” in: Miriam Elson, ed., The Kohut Seminars on Self Psychology and Psychotherapy with Adolescents and Young Adults, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1987, pp. 3 – 17.

NOTE: Kohut was careful to state that narcissism is not necessarily “bad,” not a pejorative word.  We need a healthy amount for self-preservation.  Excess becomes a problem, however.

Please see also: www.selfpsychologypsychoanalysis.org .

2. “…people cannot get better at something they never do.”  From: Richard B. Gunderman, MD, PhD, MPH, “A Prescription for what Ails Medical Education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 December 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/A-Prescription-for-What-Ails/143623 .

Please see also: http://bioethics.iu.edu/people/affiliates/richard-b-gunderman .

3. Neuroscience tells us that this is not just a figure of speech.  The survivor forms new and important memories after the death of a loved one.  More recent research studies in neurophysiology have demonstrated that there is a physiological change in the brain when a new memory is formed.  So we are actually, factually changed by death even in the most literal physical sense, not only in the psychosocial sense.  Please see the work of Don B. Arnold, PhD, University of Southern California: http://dornsife.usc.edu/arnold.  See also: www.usc.edu/programs/neuroscience/faculty; and for the non-scientist: “Secrets of the Brain,” National Geographic, February 2014, pp. 28 – 57, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com.

4. Jonathan H. Sacks, PhD, The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning, London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2012, p. 237.

5. Monica Williams-Murphy, MD, “Love as a Guiding Principle,” website blog: www.oktodie.com/blog/love-as-a-guiding-principle , 10 June 2013.

Please see also: Monica Williams-Murphy, MD and Kristian Murphy, It’s OK to Die, USA: the authors and MKN, LLC, 2011.

6. J. William Worden, PhD, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1982, p. 56.  Please see also: www.rosemead.edu/faculty/profiles/william_worden .

7. Rabbi Jonathan H. Sacks, PhD., To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, New York: Schocken Books, 2005, p.221.

8. According to tradition, the Jewish mourners also recite the Kaddish, known as the Mourner’s Prayer.  It focuses on life, promise, and honor of the lost loved one.  Saying Kaddish is considered to be a true act of kindness.  It is said daily for 11 months after the death and then again on the anniversary of the loved one’s death.  Afterwards, it is repeated on each subsequent anniversary.  Of much interest is the requirement that Kaddish be said in a quorum of at least 10 mourners.*   We heal best in the company of others.  Traditional practices account for this truth.

* “Understanding Shiva: Mourner’s Kaddish,” website: www.shiva.com/learning-center/sitting-shiva.  The text for the Kaddish prayer can be found on this website.

9. Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” Collected Poems, The Estate of Langston Hughes, 1994, www.poetryfoundation.org .

10. Jonathan H. Sacks, PhD, The Great Partnership, London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2012, p. 238.

—————-

It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction.  Fiction has to make sense. — Mark Twain 

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.— Theodor S. Geisel 

—————- 

 rea

Rea Ginsberg is a retired Director of Social Work Services, Hospice Coordinator, and adjunct professor of clinical social work.  She can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @rginsberg2.

Photo credit: http://bigother.com/2011/04/06/touching-on-grief-on-the-story-%E2%80%9Cdreaming-before-sleep%E2%80%9D-by-kathryn-chetkovich-and-freedom-by-jonathan-franzen/

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15 thoughts on “The Healer’s Wound: Grief Postponed by Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD

  1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author

    Rea shows us clearly how our stories are sacred and how sharing our stories is healing and restorative. Those who suffer loss and those of us in the healing professions need this advice the most. But, we will ALL need this advice someday.

    Relatedly, we should all be recording the stories of our lives, death is only the final chapter.

    Reply
  2. Robert Jones

    Another excellent commentary Rea. Perhaps with more stories, there would be a greater sense of community. Of commonality, and the peace that comes when you realize others have similar stories. That is one great thing about this site and the book “ok to die”. We are drawn together by our struggle when there are known stories behind our faces. A picture is only worth a thousand words—when the words are shared.
    Writing ones stories is similar to landing an airplane. The touch down might be bumpy (the story might be rough). However, once the (words)–airplane has settled down—there is a certain peace of mind.

    Reply
    1. Rea

      Very nicely said, Robert Jones! You start where I left off. Sharing the words/feelings makes a big difference, as I tried to say in this piece. Ultimately, nothing is more important than human connection. Ultimately, love is the only voice that matters. We heal best in the company of others. We are changed by loss and require that the changed self be recognized and affirmed…because it is for keeps, not just for a day but for always. Peace is hiding somewhere right in there… Thank you for your comments!

      Reply
      1. Robert Jones

        My pleasure to respond Rea Ginsberg. Your writing offers opportunity for a revolution toward peace.

        Like the peaceful sounds of leaves rustling together in a gentle wind,—our matured stories can perhaps mingle into a glimpse of Heaven’s possibilities. Your writings along with the book “Its OK to Die”, have helped my stories mature.

        Reply
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  5. Rea

    I feel the need to make an additional comment. The essence of this article is that we have hard feelings (anger, guilt, narcissism) as well as loving sadness. Because of this, we feel ashamed within ourselves and embarrassed before others. And yet, the hard feelings also need a voice. In this way, to tell the truth is not so easy, but it is also necessary for healing. We heal best in the company of others, and those others who matter don’t mind hearing the hard feelings. We trust that they will love us anyway and forgive (!!) our anger and narcissism. So tell the truth! In so doing, it sets us free to find peace. That peace is sometimes hiding in plain sight because we hesitate to embarrass ourselves with telling of the whole truth. The WHOLE truth is the real and precious story of the self!

    I would also like to point sharply, again, to footnote # 3. It is virtually revolutionary in the broad field of thanatology. It affirms what we have always known intuitively. We don’t “get over it” or “snap out of it” because we cannot. We are already changed by loss, physiologically as well as psychologically. Now, with the help of splendid modern neuroscience, we can prove it scientifically. And that is awesome.

    Reply
  6. Julie Saeger Nierenberg

    Rea and all commenters, I am so glad I found this article. It truly speaks to my condition at many significant points in my life, and I’d like to point out that those times, grievous ones, were rarely events that involved another’s death, but they certainly were times of significant change and loss, of major transition. Sometimes grief is our response to a loss of possibility, a death of potential and of roads not traveled; these times are part of the significant creation and narration of our whole life. When we hide from ourselves and others, we give up deep and meaningful connection and our growth potential.

    Thank you for this excellent article, Rea, and for being such a beacon of truth and Light.

    Reply
    1. Rea

      YES, Julie!! The death of our dreams. I think of that often. Where there is still life, no matter how compromised, there is still room for the dreams. And the end of the life is necessarily the end of some of those dreams. As you say eloquently, that is part of our grief. Even where no death is involved, times of transition can bring about grief, too! — Thank you for reading, for writing, and for insightful, introspective comments.

      Reply
  7. Elaine Mansfield

    Thank you so much for this article. I love your connections to mythology–Narciccus and Chiron (wounded healer). A griever apologized to me yesterday because she feels unable to attend support groups and take in the grief of others. I reassured her. I felt the same in the beginning, but learned that I could help and hold the grief of others when my friend’s husband got sick and died after mine did. From 2006 – 2009, during my husband’s illness and after his death, my women’s mythology class studied the myth of Orpheus and used Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” as one of our texts. That myth and those sonnets (as well as many others) gave me images to grieve and live by. I thank you again for this beautiful piece, and off I go to share it.
    Warmly, Elaine

    Reply
    1. Rea

      Thank you for your comments, Elaine! I so enjoy reading what YOU write! Writing can be truly healing. Interesting agreement here: I also love the works of Rilke! He was profoundly in touch with his deeper self, his unconscious. You read it in every poem. It is a skill that not many people are willing to risk because it causes psychic pain – the old “moral angst.”. We recover from the pain, and we find that we have grown from the effort, the experience. We can reach more deeply into the hurt of others –> empathy. Just exactly as you say: words to live by and grieve by. Thank you!

      Reply
  8. Elaine Mansfield

    I need to add that I had to tell my story over and over again still. I journaled about it and repeated it to friends. Three months after my husband died, I turned my writing focus from women’s health to “my story” and eventually I wrote a book that will be published this fall. I’m still telling (and writing) my story. Thanks again for your healing words, Elaine

    Reply
    1. Rea

      Keep telling it and writing it! Help for you and help very much for others as well. Also, looking forward to reading your book!! Wonderful project!

      Reply
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