There are certain terms that are routinely used to classify experiences that are unequivocally different from each other. Classification, as in diagnosis, has utility in that an accurate diagnosis can determine an appropriate course of treatment for an individual. Classification also has from my perception, a major downside: it prevents us from appreciating the totality of the experience. For example, individuals who are sad from changes in life circumstances, due to loss and divorce may be labeled as depressed. Being sad and being depressed have different meanings. For example, the extreme sadness that results from loss can subside or become more manageable with proper support and a willingness to change our perspective. Depression is a debilitating condition that impacts a person’s ability to function and negatively impacts all areas of their lives. I believe that we are too quick to classify, diagnose or attempt to pigeonhole individuals’ experiences without understanding the totality of that experience.
As a person who has experienced the death of a child, I have given much thought to the terms that have been used to try to describe our experience or to try to provide us hope and comfort. One term that is commonly used in this context or in the context of any life-altering transition is “ healed” or “healing” Here is a four- part definition that I found online: 1.To restore to health or soundness; cure; 2. To set right; repair: healed the rift between us; 3. To restore (a person) to spiritual wholeness; 4.To become whole and sound; return to health (Retrieved from: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/healing).
There are two main components to this definition. The first is the healing that occurs from physical injury or disease; the second refers to the restoration of a person to spiritual wholeness. The second part of this definition will be my focus for this article.
Undermining the Experience
The first recollection that I have of questioning the use of the term “healing” following Jeannine’s death was when I was watching news coverage in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. The newscasters (and I am paraphrasing) were commenting on how great it was that the students were coming back to school just days after the incident, and how this was an indication that the healing could now begin. I remember wanting to emphatically proclaim to these newscasters, that, from my perspective, their comments were not accurate. If anything, their comments served to undermine the present experience of these students.
Let the Healing Begin?
First of all, the Virginia tech shootings and other similarly catastrophic events drastically alter our perceptions of the world and threaten our safety in that world. The entire culture of that college community was forever changed, not only for the current population but also for future students enrolling in that school. The event demanded that the students who were left in the aftermath of the shooting reassess their assumptions about safety and predictability as a part of college campus life. I would not dispute that healing is a necessary part of adjusting in the aftermath of tragic loss, but it doesn’t begin immediately. We have to focus first on survival, a day, sometimes a minute at a time. . Returning to a routine that is comfortable is one way we deal with events that defy human law. It is our most basic form of survival and a way to distract us from the pain. We begin our healing spiritual journey after loss, only after we have made the conscious decision to live by finding meaning in a world that has become different. Does this mean we return to spiritual wholeness, as the definition of healing suggests? I am not so sure that it does.
The Process of Redefinition
A return to spiritual wholeness implies that when we “heal” from catastrophic loss, we were either spiritually whole to begin with or that we pick up where we left off prior to catastrophe, with no further lessons to be learned. I do not believe that we become whole after loss, but that we become redefined. We are not the same people anymore. The process of redefinition, like the journey after my daughter Jeannine’s death, is life long. For me, there will be no end to the spiritual lessons that I will learn. I can also revisit the pain of my daughter Jeannine’s death (and have) anytime on my journey.The pain of a child’s death, though becoming softer in later years, resurfaces in varying intensity until we are called to eternal life. Our pain becomes woven into the tapestry of our redefined lives and if we let it, can be a catalyst to help others and to help us develop further insight into our own existence.
I will never consider myself to be healed from loss. Being healed implies that there are no more lessons to learn and no more wisdom to share. I will always consider myself to be in a state of healing. I will be forever committed to awareness of the messages that are contained in all that is a part of the universe and to hopefully inspire others to walk in awareness. In a state of healing, I will continue to transform and continue to grow.
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation -- either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.