A couple years ago I was having dinner with a friend and business colleague of mine, Edward. We were talking about our mutual loss and grief and I mentioned the “H” word. Edward paused and said, “Heal. What does that even mean?” There was an uncharacteristic edge to his voice. Edward wasn’t expecting an answer, and I didn’t have one at the ready.
That’s not the first time a bereaved parent has bristled, or gone on the defensive, when the words “healing” or “heal” enter our conversation. I think I know why, and I’ll come back to that, but first a little more about Edward.
I met Edward in 2016. He was working as a consultant for the company I was with at the time. After three days of meetings, he came into my office to say goodbye. He noticed the guitar hanging on the wall behind my desk. I showed him the autograph “4 Casey, James Taylor” and explained my nephew was at a concert of his in Switzerland. He brought the guitar I had given him the year before to the show in Lucerne on the oft-chance there would be an opportunity to ask Mr. Taylor to sign it for me. Chutzpah.
“Wow.” Edward was impressed. Me too.
He then turned around and looked at the photos hanging on another wall of James Taylor and our son Jimmy-sweet baby James-respectively sitting on old beat-up trucks. I don’t know what it was specifically. Maybe the way he was studying the photos. The day before he mentioned, in passing, he had a 13-year-old son. I didn’t talk about my kids. But now, my antennae were up.
I pulled from my bookshelf a copy of Suffering Is the Only Honest Work and handed it to Edward.
“I want you to have this. My co-author Jimmy, the one in those photographs, is my son. He was accidentally killed in 2008. He was 24.”
Edward held the book in both hands and stared at the cover for quite some time. His shoulders began to shake. He finally looked up at me and, with tears streaming down his face, said
“My son had a twin sister. My daughter died three years ago. She was ten years old. I’m barely able to talk about it and I sure as hell can’t even begin to write about it.”
Writing is what he does for a living.
We dispensed with the customary goodbye handshake and hugged. The next day he let me know he read the book on the plane ride home, but with a caveat. “I’m not ready to talk about it.”
We were in a different place. I was eight years into life without Jimmy, and he was only three.
What does Webster’s say?
Heal. It sounds simple, but the word is complex and the 10th Edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary accords it four definitions. The most common is: To make sound or whole.
As touched upon in our Melancolie post, if to be ‘healed’ means becoming whole again and restored to the person I was before Jimmy died then, no, I am not healed. Nor will I ever be. I can never be ‘made whole.’ Sure, there’s a lot of me that’s the same, but I’ve changed. The pieces of me that split and went with our son are not coming back. I don’t want them back. The stuff that’s poured in to partially fill the hole in my heart is new and much of it unrecognizable to my friends and colleagues. I’m not that person they remember and would like to have back. I can’t go back.
That is only one definition of ‘heal,’ yet it is the one so many want for us. They want us the way we were before “it” happened. But, bless their well-meaning hearts, they can’t comprehend the fact that just isn’t possible. Doctor can’t make it all better. There will be no “aha” moment when we wake up one morning and can say, ‘Ok, I’m finally healed. Whew. Glad that’s over. Don’t have to think about that anymore.’
And we sometimes bristle when we hear the word, with that definition in mind, because we know at our core this is a finish line that can never be crossed. We can become defensive when a colleague wants to know how we’re coming with getting back up on the horse.
We’re constantly confronted with the possibility we’re just like Sisyphus pushing that rock—our grief—up the hill to reach the “all healed” summit, only to have it roll back down on us. Over and over again.
‘Something must be wrong with us. They feel sorry for us—even a little disappointed. We have let them down.’
There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with us. But, yes, we are different. We’ll never be the same person we were before. As Billy Bob Thornton reflected upon the loss of his younger brother, Jimmy, in a two minute video for Oprah Magazine “You won’t ever get over it. The more you know it and embrace it, the better off you will be.
Webster’s has another definition: To cause an undesirable condition to be overcome: MEND <the troubles had not been forgotten, but they had been healed>
Mend: I like this a little better. It seems more relevant. It speaks to survival, becoming able to live with and after the loss of someone we deeply love, but never forgetting the loss. Healed to a point.
The masks we wear
I’m reminded of the Richard Harrow character in the Boardwalk Empire TV series. Harrow, played by hunk Jack Huston, lost half of his face thanks to a German sniper in Verdun during WWI. He wears a mask to hide his hideous wounds and make it easier for people to look at him. But his mask isn’t enough. There are the scars. He can only speak with one half of his mouth—that’s all he has. Harrow was horribly disfigured. The wounds to his face did mend, to a point. His mind and psyche, not so much. He’s a professional assassin. He cannot forget his “troubles.” Nor can anyone else who looks at him and his mask.
I wear a mask. We all do. I can smile, laugh, engage in light, breezy conversation with the best of ‘em. I don’t often let our friends and colleagues—and even family—see the pain, my scars, my tats, my tears, the hole in my heart. I suppose, like Harrow, I want to make it easier for them. Easier on their eyes, their minds. But they know. They “see” the mask. They don’t want to look away. Out of respect, love, guilt, unknowing. But with the rare exception, they don’t—can’t—ask me to take it off. ‘How are you really doing, Casey?’
And I’m OK with that.
Because I’m now OK with taking off my mask. I’m not afraid or uncomfortable to show and talk about my battle scars. I know this is how I can connect deeply with those I care about and love here and those over “there.” And deeply connect with people I have just met.
I call this “going half-way.” If they don’t bring “it” up, I will. Tom Zuba’s book Permission to Mourn. When I take off my mask, I’m giving them permission to mourn with me. Jimmy. One of their loved ones.
Is healing possible?
In his forward to Susan Hannifin-MacNab’s book, A to Z Healing Toolbox, Tom shares these thoughts about “healing.”
Is healing possible? Healing your broken heart? I believe it is. But I don’t think healing is always a destination at which we arrive. For many of us, healing becomes our way of being in the world. We heal a little bit more every day…The work of healing is hard. Really, really hard…the isolation and loneliness and the feeling of being abandoned by so many family and friends was surprising. And confusing. [Susan and I] talked about stumbling. A lot. And getting back up. And taking another step in the direction of healing… In order to heal you have to work at it. Many times throughout the day.
“Healing isn’t a destination…healing becomes our way of being in the world.” This resonates deeply. “Healing” isn’t a box you check off on your “To Do” list. Healing is a way of our new life moving forward. It becomes part of who we are.
“The work of healing is hard.” We can all attest to that. It’s akin to going back to school and taking classes in a language completely foreign to us. Or starting a new job at which we have absolutely zero experience. It’s hard work we must do every day.
[Susan and I] talked about hope. And possibility. About realizing that time alone did not and would not heal our wounds. But rather what mattered was what we did with our time…Setting the intention to heal. Even when, especially when, we weren’t quite certain that healing was even possible. We talked about the importance of holding a vision of what healing looked like. So, we would know it when we arrived. At a place of healing.
So we would know what healing looked like when we arrived at a place of healing. I readily admit that in those initial years after Jimmy died, I had no concept of what this meant or that it was even remotely possible.
“So, when did you feel you turned a corner with your grief?”
A couple of years ago I was talking with Guillermo, an overly confident Cuban-born attorney friend of mine, at our gym. A dear friend of his had recently lost his 26-year old son to an accidental drug overdose. He asked me, “When did you feel you turned a corner with your grief after you lost Jimmy?”
Thoughtful question. I came up with my reply surprisingly fast.
“It was when I felt I was in a place where I could begin to help others. I started the “fraternity” with a couple of other dads. I became comfortable sitting with other dads and moms, sharing our pain and experiences and providing some guidance and support. That wasn’t until five years after Jimmy died.”
I can’t say I knew then, or even know now, what healing looks like, but I knew I had arrived at a place of healing.
Up until then, I was consumed by our loss. Sure, some amazing things were happening to us early on like my father’s letter, incredible synchronicities and messages and visits from Jimmy. And I was furiously writing them down and sharing them with others under the protection of emails and our website. But I was not yet at a place where I felt I could sit down face to face and companion others with their loss. My loss, my pain, was too fresh, too self-absorbing.
I recently came across a 2013 interview with Angela Miller on the Still Breathing blog. Interview with Angela Miller. Angela lost her first son when he was a toddler. She has two other boys and her life work has become helping others who suffer unbearable loss. She talked about her road towards a healing place.
Yes, I was in a very dark place for what seemed like an eternity. I honestly didn’t know if I’d ever make it out of that place, though I was always very proactive in taking positive steps towards healing. It happened very slowly. First, I had to feel the feelings. All of them, and most especially the dark ones. Unending compassion, love and unconditional support from three amazing therapists, who I am forever thankful for, and a few very supportive, unwavering friends is what ultimately saved me– along with my own resolve to not allow *this* to defeat, define or destroy me.
Early on I decided that if I did, in fact, survive this thing called grief & trauma, that I would dedicate my life to being a compassionate, loving, healing support for others. Once I felt like I could honestly stand up again on my own two feet and offer that support without drowning in my own pain, I knew it was time to start serving other bereaved parents. For me that happened after a long, hard four and a half years of intensive grief and trauma work, which I continue still.
Timing is everything, and I know it is so different for everyone. Personally, I had to heal my own trauma before I could be of much use in offering support to anyone else. I knew I was ready when it became impossible for me not to—when it became the only thing I could imagine myself doing.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt, in his book Companioning the Bereaved, astutely observes:
We wish that grief would resolve. We wish that it was linear and finite. We wish that we could wake up one day and our painful thoughts and feelings would all be “over.”
Grief never resolves, however. While we can learn to reconcile ourselves to it, grief is transformative and life-changing…the grief journey requires…depression, anxiety and loss of control. It requires going into the wilderness. Quietness and emptiness invite the heart to observe signs of sacredness, to regain purpose, to rediscover love, to renew life! Searching for meaning, reasons to get one’s feet out of bed, and understanding the pain of loss are not the domain of the medical model of bereavement care. Experience has taught me that it is the mysterious, spiritual dimension of grief that allows us to go on living until we, too, die.
Heal-what does it even mean?
I agree with Tom, Susan and Dr. Wolfelt. Healing is possible, but we will never be healed. Not in the sense that we can ever become whole or the person we were before. We will never forget the loved ones we lost, and the pain will always be there, but hopefully less intense as the years go by.
Healing is part of our daily life and who we now are. Our healing evolves with us and those close to us. There are milestones, but no goal line. And, although sometimes the “rock” will slip back down the hill, if we work hard at our healing, it won’t roll all the way back down the hill on us like poor Sisyphus.
The first stage is taking care of yourself and your immediate family: your spouse, your kids. That’s all consuming. We called it “doing the work.” Hilary, Brittany and I were Team Healing. We saw therapists, mediums, shamans, psychics, Tarot card readers, coffee grounds readers, Indian Guides. Psychic led grief groups. Read all the books, listened to the tapes. We did it all! Still do.
For me, journaling and logging down my dreams helped me quiet the mind and focus. I wrote about my family history. I started writing the stories of the amazing things that we were being shown.
Five years into AJ (After Jimmy) I was in a place, a stage, where I could begin to help others. The fraternity, one on ones with bereaved parents. My writing has evolved from storytelling into more pragmatic, introspective pieces about grief and loss. I began to take deeper looks into what might be going on with our visits and synchronicities, and helping others prepare and open up to receive theirs. I’ve written very publicly about my father’s death by suicide; something I never thought I’d be able to do in this lifetime.
Is there another healing place-stage for me? Who knows. I’m content to continue doing the work.
The mysterious, spiritual dimension of grief
I do know our exposure to and exploration of the mysterious, spiritual dimension of grief that Dr. Wolfelt refers to, has helped me and my family get to a healing place. As I know it has helped so many of you.
Dr. Heidi Pottinger wrote about this in her wonderful article, Grief Can Awaken Moments of Profound Joy. Grief and Joy in the same sentence? An oxymoron if there ever was one. Or so I would have thought BJ-Before Jimmy died. She has suffered crushing loss and in return received countless ADCs-After Death Communications—from her loved ones. I call them NLEs-Near Life Experiences in Priests Mediums and Shamans.
As I said, the pieces of me that were torn out and split with Jimmy, my Dad, and other loved ones–I don’t want those back. That’s what keeps me connected with them. That is our bridge between “here” and “there.” The stuff that crosses over that bridge, the NLEs/ADCs, never cease to amaze me and send goosebumps throughout my entire body.
So, if that means I will never heal or be completely healed, I’m OK with that.
P.S. Edward is at a place where he is talking and writing beautifully about his daughter. This post is dedicated to her memory.