When we experience a traumatic or deeply upsetting event, it’s important to give ourselves the time and space to heal, and not expect recovery to be without its setbacks.
Do you remember this little rhyme? “Spring is sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the birdies is?”
I’m not sure where that rhyme comes from originally, but it sprang to mind for me this week as I opened the patio doors wide and looked out on the wilderness that is our back garden at the moment. Spring definitely has sprung; in the garden, there are hints of semi-cultivated plants amidst the dead leaves and the weeds, and in the park across the road, the daffodils are a mass of yellow and green against the clipped expanse of grass. There’s a sadness for me in this Spring season because of recent events in the lives of my family. Spring is both a welcome relief from the dark, rainy and raw days of the winter; and a bitter-sweet reminder of how this Spring and Summer will be different from previous ones.
Recovery from traumatic events — in our case, loss and bereavement — cannot be hurried. Like a physical injury, emotional injuries will heal according to their own schedule, although there are things we can do to encourage (or, conversely, hinder) the process. In my life, I have a sense of slowly taking up the reins again, of doing more than just getting on with what needs to be done to keep the business going and to put meals on the table. I’m slowly allowing myself to open up to small pleasures like finding seashells with which to decorate some plant pots, reading a favourite novel in the sunshine, driving along the seafront with the breeze whipping against my face. And yet, in the act of opening up to small pleasures, there is also the possibility of opening up again to pain, as if one cannot be open to one without its shadow side elbowing in alongside.
It’s entirely possible, in my experience, to blank off emotional pain for periods of time ranging from hours to days even, but there’s an emotional deadness in that which isn’t healthy in the long-term. Being open to our own and other people’s emotional lives is part of fully engaging with life; disengagement may arguably be safer in the sense of protecting us from our own and other people’s pain, but it can also mean a loss of pleasure too. It’s a high price to pay.
I grew up in a family where the expression of feelings was discouraged; there was a great deal of “not crying over spilt milk” and declarations that “life has to go on”. We were expected not to dwell on upsetting things, and certainly not to talk about them; after all, there was nothing you could do to change them, so what was the point?
This is something I hear clients say, too: “I can’t change the past so what’s the point talking about it?”. There are two things I would say to this. Firstly, while it’s not possible to change the actual events of the past, it is possible to gain a different perspective on them by talking about them with another person, be that a counsellor or a sympathetic friend. In itself, that can help us to feel better about ourselves in the present. Secondly, without an understanding of how past events have shaped us and our thoughts, beliefs and actions, how can we know to avoid repeating the same unhelpful patterns of behaviour that have brought us to this point in the first place?
Having said that, there’s also a case for helping someone deal with the immediate problems they’re facing in getting on with everyday life, rather than dragging them back to explore earlier experiences that may just make them feel more depressed or anxious than when they started. A friend and colleague of mine works with extremely anxious clients in a National Health Service setting. She has perhaps eight sessions in total available for each client, and within that time, she has to try to get them back to work, feeling a bit less anxious and a bit more able to function and get on with what needs to be done. She doesn’t have the luxury available to those of us in private practice, of working long-term with clients, to get to the bottom of where their anxieties come from; she just has to get them back out the door, a little more able to cope with life. The exploration of past relationships and prior patterns of behaviour must wait for another therapist at another time.
As I gradually take up the reins again and try to get back into the swing of things, I’m not trying to kid myself that I’m over the sad and traumatic events that have happened recently; the work of recovery and healing has started in that I’ve begun to get on with the necessary tasks of everyday life, and finding pleasure in things again. But I’m all too aware that there are other deeper feelings and thoughts that I need to work through over the coming weeks and months before I can truly say that I’ve ‘come to terms’ with recent events. The key is to show some empathy and kindness to yourself at times like these, and not expect too much too soon.