“It’s a kind of test, Mary, and it‘s the only kind that amounts to anything. When something rotten like this happens, then you have your choice. You start to really be alive, or you start to die. That’s all.” ~James Agee, in A Death in the Family.
That quote begins a chapter on “recasting” in Foster and Hicks’ book How We Choose to be Happy. It’s about the process people go through to successfully recover after life-altering traumas and disasters shake their lives.
I turned to it when I got a note from a friend of mine in Japan. His family wasn’t directly affected by March’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, and the ongoing threat from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But emotionally it’s all taking its toll.
“It’s hard to feel motivated to do or start anything new,” he wrote, “when it all could be washed away in an instant.” He describes it as “a typical ‘What’s the Point?’ mild funk.”
When Disaster Changes Everything
I could feel the sadness and lethargy in his words and I thought of all the photos I’d seen of people who had been through this year’s horrendous natural disasters. Not only in Japan, but in the aftermath of the massive floods and fires and tornadoes here in the United States, too. Their faces looked so bewildered, their eyes so bereft of hope.
Life is difficult enough when tragedy strikes on a personal level: the loss of a loved one, the breakdown of a marriage, the loss of a home or career.
But what do you do when your entire future dies? When the whole world has changed and you know that life will never be the same again–not for you, not for your children or for their children? How do you regain your bearings? How do you make a new start?
The Two-Fold Path to Healing
According to Foster and Hicks, whether the loss is personal or shared by countless others, the process of recovery and healing is two-fold:
1) First, you dive into your feelings—into your sorrow, emptiness and grief, your pain and rage and fear—and let yourself experience them completely. Struggling to just “get over it,” or to bravely “just go on,” leads only to numbness, not healing.
- Try naming what you feel or describing it. Then just let yourself really, really feel it. Where is the feeling located in your body? In your chest? In your stomach? In your throat? Is it heavy? Tight? Watery? Hot? Honor it by paying attention to it, and just let it be. You don’t have to do anything about it or react to it in any way. Just recognize it. Feel it; breathe into it and let it be.
- It helps not to associate the feeling with your identity. Instead of saying “I am sad,” say, “I’m feeling a lot of sadness right now.” The feeling isn’t you; it’s an emotion that you are experiencing.
2) In the second phase, you begin to search for new insights and interpretations of life. You find yourself looking for the worthwhile knowledge you gained from your experience, for the new meanings that you can create in your life. You begin looking for opportunities for the future that you can create from your new position. In other words, you begin to grow, to shape new understandings and purpose from your tragedy.
There’s no right answer; there’s only the answer that’s right for you. Some will find meaning in being of service to others. Some will experience a revelation about what’s really important for them to do or experience or accomplish in their lives. For some, meaning will come through creativity expressed through one of the arts or through inventiveness. For others meaning might come simply through a commitment to cherishing and savoring the present.
If you know your values-based strengths, you may find guidance in applying the top few of them to your new situation.
Growth Takes Time
While you’re going through the process, be patient with yourself. To make a new start on life in a radically changed world takes time. For some it may be a matter of weeks, for others months or even years before real happiness returns as a regular part of their everyday experience.
That doesn’t mean you’ll stay locked in sadness the whole time. The pain of tragic experiences and the memories of them wax and wane. You’ll have your moments of light and joy as you go along. Whole good days will sneak up on you more and more often.
But coming to terms with a devastating loss is a struggle, and all growth takes time.
From Tragedy to Transformation
Interestingly, recent research into grieving draws the same conclusions that the Foster and Hicks interviews produced. The struggle to come to terms with loss produces growth. In fact, the research indicates that the more distress the losses caused—the more unfair they seemed, the more unexpected—the greater the potential for meaningful post-traumatic growth.
“We have the strength to master our reactions purposefully to even the most traumatic events,” say Foster and Hicks, “and, in so doing, transform ourselves. Therefore, we do not have to be held captive by sadness and loss. We can experience them fully and grow richer from having been in their shadow.”
My friend in Japan is on the right track. He’s identifying what he’s feeling, and he’s asking the question that his feelings are presenting to him right now: “What’s the point?” And the asking itself, in its own right time, will lead him to discovering his own perfect set of answers.
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