Relationships counsellor Dr Charmaine Saunders offers her wisdom on how to recover from illness and loss.
It's an interesting example of synchronicity that every time I'm assigned an article by NOVA Magazine, I seem to be dealing with that theme or something has just happened in my life to make it particularly relevant. Last week, I lost my best friend from school, after her two year struggle with cancer. So, healing is very much the place I'm at right now.
Actually, I'm not at the healing stage yet. It's too raw and I'm still working through the more immediate emotions of shock, disbelief, anger, depression and deep sadness. Seeing as this type of healing is uppermost in my mind at present, let's start our discussion there.
Loss of a loved one
There are several stages of bereavement - shock, anger, denial, grief and acceptance, not necessarily in that order. They can run concurrently or one by one and sometimes years can pass between each stage.
Shock is the initial disbelief that accompanies even an expected death but especially if the loss is sudden. A part of the brain shuts down and numbs the pain, cushioning the extreme emotion that is the natural reaction to a tragic event.
Anger. This can be directed towards God, Fate, the doctors if illness was the cause of death, Self if you feel you failed the dead person in some way, and even the loved one who had the temerity to die and leave you!
Denial is one stage that can literally last for years as the psyche attempts to protect itself from the reality of loss. I myself just kept busy for six years after my mother died until I was forced to undergo bereavement counselling - yes, workaholism is a common reaction to emotional pain.
Grief finally comes when all defences break down. It's the emotional release necessary to relieve the pent-up pain, sadness and bleak sense of emptiness after the loss of a loved one. It's very upsetting but clears out the tension and brings us to the final stage.
Acceptance and peace comes once the loss has been embraced, all goodbyes said and grief faced. Some sort of closure is important whether it's as simple as visiting the graveside or as difficult as writing a farewell letter. Tears must flow and hearts must break before calm can settle in the soul.
How do we move on from hurtful experiences?Never place all your hopes and dreams in one place. Have a variety of friends and interests in your life always so that moving on can be done with the help of a network of loving supporters.Nurture yourself and don't look to others to fulfil all your needs. In times of crisis, take time out to grieve, heal and care for yourself as you would a hurting friend.Forgive. You cannot move on without resolving the past, which includes forgiving and, if possible, forgetting - but only forget the hurt, not the lessons gained. Let go of what you think you did wrong but try to find something positive in the relationship itself. Vow not to repeat the same mistakes and hang on to the good times and happy memories.Respect others' choices. For example, if someone decides they want to leave you, look beyond your own ego and pride to where the other person is coming from. Maybe they have a good reason that you're not aware of and even if they don't, it's their right to leave and by honouring that choice, you reduce your own pain.Detach from negative ideas such as fault, blame and guilt. Sometimes relationships cannot continue and it has nothing to do with either person.Always keep clear and healthy boundaries in any relationship. Don't let the lines blur between your identity and the other person's. We're all on individual paths.Conduct all relationships in a spirit of sharing, not out of need or desperation, so that if one ends you haven't given up all of your power. It will still hurt but you are only responsible for your half of the equation - you don't need to understand or explain the rest.Clear communication and honesty. Ask what you need to know and be honest about your own feelings and the part you played in the outcome of your relationship.Be aware of negative self talk and mind chatter. When you hear it, gently chide yourself and place a positive thought in its place. Use techniques to calm your mind like meditation, saying affirmations or doing enjoyable exercise.
After a break-up, ask yourself these three questions:
1 What was my role in the break-up?
2 What is the lesson?
3 What is the gift?
In order to heal from a physical condition, we need to identify why we got sick in the first place. We cannot separate physical health from mental, emotional and spiritual health. Wellbeing encompasses all of these aspects and they all need care if true health is to be maintained. Prevention of illness is always preferable to repair. Living a balanced lifestyle with adequate sleep, a good diet, regular exercise and minimum stress ensures fitness of mind and body. The importance of play should not be underestimated either. It sounds facile but happiness is a most effective weapon against disease.
When people get seriously sick, they often instinctively know why. One friend who was told she had a giant brain tumour told me candidly, "I know I grew that out of my negativity." Luckily, the growth was benign and she lived to benefit from this valuable wakeup call.
Why is it that we humans require a mallet over the head to learn our vital lessons? Far better to live a proactive life where we love and value ourselves enough to care for the needs of our body, mind and spirit than to have to confront a life threatening disease. If, however, we are faced with a serious illness, we must then choose how we wish to heal - by medical intervention, alternative therapies, spiritual beliefs and so on. Of course, the most important weapon, before or after illness, is always a positive mental attitude.
Resolving past wounding is, of course, the main stuff of counselling. It's essential for peace of mind, positive living and healthy relationships. Naturally, I would advocate that every person live what Carl Jung calls "an examined life". Most people are unhappy but don't know what to do about it, so they just drift along in a blind rut, bemoaning their fate and expecting the worst from life. Yet a willingness to embrace healing is the first step to a transforming freedom, and who doesn't want that? It's not easy and in fact, requires extreme courage but the rewards are great. It's basically a three step process:
1 Face past events honestly
2 Identify patterns that have developed from this past conditioning, and
3 Assume responsibility for where you are in the present.
After these steps have been followed, release has to take place, a bloodletting, like opening a wound and letting all the poison run out. This will take time and commitment but only then can healing take place.
Writing down your feelings and thoughts is one of the most therapeutic tools available to the average person who may not wish to seek counselling but would like to engage in an exercise of self awareness.
What heals us?
Nature - go to the ocean, the bush or the river and let the energies wash over you, calm you and offer up insights.
Music - soothing music can bring down blood pressure, lift spirits, make us smile and give us pleasure.
Pets and animals - patting a dog, cat, rabbit, horse and any other of our furry friends is a proven aid to stress. Pets have been used to bring people out of comas and as companions for the depressed, the ill and the aged.
Water - in particular, water, whether taken internally or externally, is literally the elixir of life. It heals us within and without. If you cannot get to the sea, a river or lake, take a bath or hose yourself in the garden.
Love - love of self and accepting love from others, but also living in a general spirit of love; enjoying each day and feeling part of all that is.
Laughter - giggle a lot, laugh at nothing, practise laughter yoga, take yourself lightly, laugh with others.
Positive thinking - the mind is infinitely powerful and can be your worst enemy or strongest ally so use it to create a beautiful reality for yourself.
Finally, do the things you enjoy and find fulfilling. That's the best healing process of all.