Last year I had a participant in an extended workshop which happened over the course of a year. He was low in energy, found it hard to get going in the mornings, and could only name exhaustion, overwhelm and depression as his feelings.
As we worked together over those months, we began to make sense of a world that had stopped making sense. There had been deaths, external and internal. His sister had died. A part of him died with her, only he didn’t know, because he had been fooled by the part of him that kept going. There had been betrayals. People he loved had not told him the truth. A part of him died with his innocence, only he didn’t know. There had been brutality and assault. A part of him died with the violence, only he had no idea that he had lost a part of himself. All he knew was that it kept getting harder to keep going.
As we sat in the healing community with the parts of self who had died, for him and for others in the program, we began to weave a deep acknowledgment of the effects of loss into our shared understanding of one another. All of our bodies started to understand the way that such deaths impact us. When bodies receive verbal resonance for the metaphorical death that happens in these moments of brokenheartedness, (“Do you need acknowledgment that you died?”) they stop having to fight the impact of the loss. Bodies let go of a bone-marrow-level bewilderment when this radical truth is named.
Over the course of the program, this participant’s body got to gradually unfreeze and catch up with the effect that the pain had had on him. His energy started to come back, he had a sense of being accompanied, and he started to expand his feelings toward sorrow, rage, and fear. He also began to feel moments of satisfaction, delight and celebration.
It is March. We are coming up on the 2 year anniversary of my son’s death. When did the part of me that died with him go? There wasn’t much left at the end. The part of me that had died seems like it was already gone by then. Which of the small betrayals of alcoholism and adaptation to fatal alcoholism took me away? If I close my eyes to accompany myself, I find that I died in my helplessness to bring about change, in my own incapacity to keep the destruction hidden within the walls of his room, in his loss of ability to acknowledge that harm was being done, in my loneliness without him. As the relationship died, so did I. I died right along with him over those 5 years, just as slowly, just as inexorably.
And if I go and find the Sarah who died, she is lying beside him on the hospital bed. I’m surprised to find her there, as I thought she had gone before. She’s both happy to be there and happy that I have found her. It’s like she’s saying, “What took you so long to notice? Of course I died.” I imagine washing her body. She likes the acknowledgment. I ask her, “Are you ready to come back to me yet?” and she smiles. She is enjoying being dead, and enjoying being found.
Tonight I’m thinking of my son, my participant and myself. I’m sitting on a plane between Portland and San Jose, on my way to co-facilitate a grief workshop. I am reading The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kok. Toward the beginning of the book, he writes about John Bowlby, “By the late 1940’s Bowlby had become persona non grata in the British psychoanalytic community, as a result of his radical claim that children’s disturbed behavior was a response to actual life experiences – to neglect, brutality, and separation – rather than the product of infantile sexual fantasies.”
These days there are far fewer clinicians who diagnose infantile sexuality as the problem for clients who are having trouble. Nowadays the tendency is to diagnose ADHD, bipolar, borderline and personality disorders. Again in our century, it is far easier to put a label on a person as if their problems arose from the label, rather than connecting with a person’s actual life experiences.
With empathy, we all have the chance to do something different from labels. We have a chance to step with Bowlby into the radical acceptance that neglect, brutality and separation have an effect on us, and that we can be with our bodies in their experience without minimizing it.