To Tell the Truth –
The Healer’s Wound: Grief Postponed
Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD
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 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.
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