Sunday, 12 November 2017
Signposts on the Way
I was talking with a friend who has been going through a rather turbulent time recently. She asked me if I'd used certain spiritual practices to help me through my own troubles in recent years. I replied that I had... but in all honesty I'm not sure that they really made a substantial contribution. So I have found myself since that conversation pondering, what did help? What got me through the darkest days after my life disintegrated around me? What kept me going?
Firstly I should say that I don't believe there's any one magical 'right' way through the swamps of grief, depression, despair. We all have to find our own way and that's one reason it's so hard. But I do think that those of us who've managed to wade through, swim through or sometimes merely keep a nostril above the murk of those swamps can leave some helpful signposts for our fellow travellers. These then are my signposts, the things that helped me.
1. Understanding the mechanism of grief.
I had heard of Elisabeth Kubler Ross's theory of the Five Stages of Grief but I really only took the idea on board when I was struggling through them myself. Basically the idea is that when confronted with sudden, traumatic change - bereavement, diagnosis of serious/terminal illness, profound loss - most of us go through five stages: denial, bargaining, anger, grief, acceptance. Briefly, the denial part is when we can't quite accept that this is happening to us and try to distance ourselves by pretending it's not happening; bargaining comes when we accept that it's happening but try to bargain our way out of it ("if I lose weight he'll love me again!", "If I start eating healthily the cancer will go away!", "If I pray hard enough she won't die!"); anger is when we rail and lash out at the unfairness of it all; grief comes when we finally let ourselves feel the loss; acceptance is when we reach the other side, absorbing and integrating our experience. We don't necessarily work through these in a neat linear fashion, often we go back and forth through them before we finally reach true acceptance.
Personally, I found it tremendously helpful to know these stages so that when it seemed my emotions were in chaos I could identify them as part of the process and know why I was feeling and reacting as I did. It was also helpful to know that by working through them I was making progress on my journey towards healing. In many ways the theory of the Five Stages of Grief is a vast oversimplification, but to me it was a vital map, a way of keeping my bearings when I really didn't know which way was up. And most importantly it held out the possibility that one day I would be able to drag myself out onto the longed-for distant shore of Acceptance and begin to move on with the rest of my life.
2. Remembering that you are not the first to go through this.
Strangely, I found some really sad break-up songs were helpful. Now I don't recommend sitting listening for hours to miserable music. I can't see that helping anyone. But there were a couple of tracks I loved because they articulated so well what I was going through. It helped me to know I wasn't the only one who'd ever felt like this. But most importantly, they were by artistes whose catalogue I was very familiar with, and I knew that the story didn't end there. These people had been where I was, they had felt as I felt, but they had moved on. They had lived through it and gone on to write other, happier songs in happier times. It held out the possibility to me that I could both feel this bad yet know that I wouldn't be stuck there forever. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, even if I couldn't see it yet, the songs let me know it was there and let me believe that one day I too would find it.
Of course it doesn't have to be a song that holds out that promise. It could be a book, a poem, a work of art, a film, a friend's story. But whatever it is, it is a reminder that you are not alone, others have trodden this path before you. And if they got through it, you can too.
3. Letting it out.
You can only come to terms with what is happening to you if you let it out, expose the wound to light and air. If you hold it tightly to you and keep it in, it will fester and you will never heal.
If you can, talk. To friends, to family, to the person at the bus stop. Verbalising something gets it out of you, takes away some of the pain, reduces its power to hurt you. Sharing a burden eases its weight.
But of course, not everyone is able to do that. Sometimes there isn't anyone to talk to, sometimes we feel we have to shield those around us from our pain and anger, sometimes it's too difficult to express. But there are other ways to let it out. For me, I talked, but writing was a life-saver. Not just here on the blog. Some of what I had to express was too raw, too painful, too personal. So I also journalled obsessively. And each word on a page leached out a little more of the poison and pain.
Words are not the only means of expressing yourself. After the death of my son, I couldn't find the words to express how I felt. So I drew, and painted and scribbled on paper. And it was like a magic balm that eventually dissipated my pain until I found I could talk about it after all.
So let it out, however you can. In speech, or writing, or painting, or building, or punching a cushion, or dancing, or running, or playing music, or screaming or whatever it takes.
Let. It. Out.
4. Pursue happiness.
Who doesn't want to be happy? Yet too often we are passive in our pursuit of happiness. We wait for it to come to us, and we take it for granted when it is in our possession.
Don't be passive! Seek out happiness. Make a list of things that give you joy and make it your mission to incorporate them into your life. It goes without saying that most of these things should be non-material or the pursuit of joy can easily sour into consumerism, hoarding and massive credit card bills. None of which are going to make you happy, quite the opposite in fact. But hang out with people you love, cook your favourite meal, sniff the roses, dance to your favourite music while doing the housework, watch the beautiful sunset, watch the DVD that always makes you laugh, cut fresh flowers for your home, snuggle up with your pets, nurture your garden, wear your favourite dress, play with your kids, walk in the bluebell woods, toast marshmallows round the bonfire with friends. And don't be too puritannical to give yourself a few materialistic treats too. If that designer perfume really does make you feel happy every time you smell it, invest in a bottle and spritz away.
I recommend two things - make a list of things that never fail to make you smile. My own list includes seeing the first swallow of summer, being with my favourite people and the exuberance of Tambourine Guy in this video. Just reading the list can lift your spirits, and you can also use it to remind yourself to do nice things! I've also made a playlist of all my favourite joyful songs that I can listen to whenever I need a boost - or just because.
And start a Jar of Blessings (or record them in a journal, or stick them on a noticeboard, or take digital photos of them...). Counting your blessings really does work.
5. And when you are finally out of the swamp...
Leave signposts for others.
Share your insights.
Listen to someone who needs a friendly ear.
Keep seeking out happiness - and spread it where you can.
If you have any helpful signposts of your own, please leave them in the comments section! Thank you.