When I first started facilitating a grief support group shortly after moving to New York, my aim was simply to create a supportive environment for members to heal from their grief and to form long lasting bonds of friendship. In the course of five months however, I’ve begun to wonder whether emotional and psychological healing can be contained into an end goal with a finish line.
For the most part, authors on grief and bereavement herald one’s arrival at a peaceful acceptance of loss as the final stage of grief which completes the cycle of grieving. Looking at my own journey these past five years, I reached acceptance fairly quickly, but I was far from healed. In fact, healing has become a daily meditation more akin to a mutable, increasingly habitual yet challenging activity that takes a great deal of effort and commitment but, in turn, affords greater and deeper insights into myself and others.
Healing, whether physical, emotional or psychosocial can sometimes happen almost in spite of ourselves. The body and mind are designed to adapt and heal when given the right support and circumstance. We get hurt and then we heal. There may be scars but only in a minority of cases are we permanently disabled. So how do we heal? Everyone’s healing process is unique and while there may be universally recommended tools and techniques to try, we each have to discover our own individual formula. I’ve also observed that while many heal well, only some flourish and thrive and fewer still, are so indelibly transformed that they rise to become beacons of inspiration to others.
In the first year after JP’s death, the effort to adjust to a space empty of JP’s absence was a monumental, herculean task. I clung to the hope that I would get back to my old self, that normalcy would one day return and expand into a happy, familiar and predictable life to replace the one I lost. I longed for relief from the ever present sorrow and I had faith that it would happen in time.
Even from the earliest moments after JP passed, I had glimpses of the future ‘healed’ me. While sitting with a friend the day after JP passed, I recounted a funny incident between JP and myself that made us both laugh. The laughter was spontaneous and real, an expression of delight at discovering a long forgotten, cherished memory. Moments later however, the laughter was replaced by shame and guilt for being so jovial so soon after JP’s death. This happened many times, quite naturally, even in the first week after JP passed. In this aspect alone, I am grateful for the fickleness of the mind for it simply cannot maintain an interrupted continuum of unceasing sorrow at every moment.
Early on, I discovered that I had acquired two new personas; one who could actually forget that JP was gone and carry on as if nothing had happened, and the other a surly, spiteful character who tortured us with shrill reminders that, “he’s gone, how could you forget?” As for the real me, she was lost in oblivion, neither living nor dead, hijacked by these two warring personas.
For me, my healing toolkit consisted of months of therapy, simple activities, meditation, spiritual association, talking and writing, until eventually, I adjusted to a world without JP. I learned to ignore the seductive inducements of rose-colored memories and an idealized past a thousand times more appealing than the lonely present. I chose to forgive myself for mistakes and failures that can never be undone and to use guilt as a motivating force for positive change rather than a quagmire of self-recrimination. I surveyed the remnants of my broken self and set about bringing her back to life.
About two years into my healing journey, it finally dawned on me that the old me I had been trying to resurrect, had burned to ashes. I recalled the many times JP expressed wistfully throughout the year following chemotherapy that he couldn’t wait to get his energy back. We both assumed that forward progression and healing, meant a return to the past, but he never regained his strength and energy. JP’s old self was gone and so was mine. Re-construction was impossible, I required a complete redesign.
Although I had adjusted to JP’s absence, had made it through the five cycles of grief and was busy establishing an entirely new life, career and relationship, I was only at the starting point. It was bewildering to me because I was no longer grieving and yet new wounds appeared, long forgotten hurts materialized out of the fog and old ways of getting things done were ineffective. What appeared before me now, was an unforeseen road that beckoned me into the shadowlands of my childhood and past, to duel with unnamed fears, repressed pain and unexpressed anger. Had I chosen not to follow this road, I may still have claimed a rightful place as one of the healed, but complete and utter transformation would have eluded me.
JP’s death once represented a doorway into a maelstrom of pain that I longed to close gently forever. To my surprise and increasing delight however, I keep it open because it has become the portal into a world of adventure and possibility to transform, evolve and transcend. The old me died with JP, but in her place is a more courageous, sensitive, perceptive, compassionate and kinder me who smiles more readily and laughs unreservedly.
Taruni Tan is a grief counselor and music therapist. She can be reached on A good day to die.