“Nobody loves me. I just want to die!” she cried as I stood there helplessly. My 12-year old brain couldn’t conjure up the right words to say to counter this immense hurricane of sadness that swirled around my mother. These kinds of episodes were becoming more and more common. After numerous suicide attempts and a two-week hospital stay while she was in a coma, I knew where this was going. She lay on her bed, crying with her brown bag of pills lying next to her. I felt that I had to do something, but I wasn’t sure just what. I finally did the only thing I could think of at the time: I grabbed her bag of pills and ran down the hallway, went into my room and locked the door. She came running after me, banging on my door, crying, “Give me my pills! Give me my pills!” I hid the bag in my room and waited for her to break the door down and administer whatever punishment awaited me for my defiance. But she stopped. Hours later, she was cooking dinner and calmly knocked on my door and asked for her pills back. I opened the door cautiously and gave them to her. She took them back without saying a word, put them away in her room and went back to making dinner. It was just another day in the life of a child with a suicidal mother.
Back then, I had seen everything purely from my own perspective. I had evaluated events that happened based on how they had affected me. This was no way for any child to live, to be sure. But many years later, after becoming an adult, being married and having children of my own, I tried to put myself in her shoes and understand her pain. By that time, there were many parallels between her life and mine. We both had had tragic upbringings, regardless if mine was actually the result of her actions. We both had married longing for the love we lacked as children and were sorely disappointed. We both had looked to motherhood to fill the resulting void. Though I had never actually walked in her shoes, I certainly had retraced many of her steps like I was following a map of sorts she had left behind. Each step gave me a greater understanding of how she had felt and what she had been going through during that dark, dreary period of her life. One big difference, though, and possibly the biggest, was that I have never faced the grief and guilt of losing one of my children.
My baby brother had died in the month of February from pneumonia at 14 months after being very sick with the flu for many weeks. I don’t remember this trip, but my grandmother had told me at one point that we all had gone on a trip from Arizona to Illinois in our camper that Christmas so our extended family could see my baby brother. Illinois can get down to thirty below so it was very cold. I made a similar trip with my firstborn and constantly kept her wrapped in piles of blankets, but I stayed indoors. My grandmother had told me that we were staying in our camper and that she had thought at the time that it was far too cold for my brother. The night my brother died in the hospital, I could hear my mother crying in the living room, “It’s all my fault! It’s all my fault!” I didn’t realize until my grandmother told me this story that my mother probably did feel directly responsible for his death. She was not just grieving, but also was filled with a tremendous amount of guilt.
If I had to reduce everything I have learned and now understand down to one thought or idea, it would be that it is almost impossible to heal while you are still in a circumstance that is painful. Constantly experiencing “new pain” reopens old wounds over and over again even if the “new pain” is of a completely different type or from a different source than the pain experienced in the past. In order to heal, you have to stop the pain.
I am not talking here simply about grieving, which can feel like new pain when grief resurfaces. This is the reality that the “Five Stages Of Grief” doesn’t address. Grief doesn’t end with acceptance when you have lost a loved one for the simple reason that you never stop loving them. Acceptance doesn’t end your love, so it doesn’t end your pain. At first, the pain sits at the surface filling your mind, and it’s almost all you can think about. Over time, it starts to sink below the surface and other thoughts fill your mind but the pain is right there, just around the corner. As the years pass, it sinks further and further down as other events and experiences seem to get piled on top of it.
Then something retriggers the pain: a holiday, an anniversary, a movie, seeing a face in a crowd, a song, or any number of things. Then the pain comes back to the surface and you seem to feel it all over again. This is the real final stage of grief: this constant sinking and resurfacing of pain. There is no escape from this or end to it as long as you still love this person. It’s a normal part of grieving. It becomes unhealthy when your pain never sinks below the surface even after years, and it continually fills your mind. “Healing” is actually just your pain staying below the surface most of the time, but you never actually “heal” in the sense that it completely stops hurting and the pain is “gone.”
People who have not experienced this themselves erroneously believe that the person needs therapy or some professional to solve this problem as if the person is broken and just needs to be fixed. In some cases, having a professional there to guide and navigate the person through the process of grief can help, but no therapist can completely heal pain. They are not emotional miracle workers. And that’s okay. Grieving people should not feel guilty about feeling pain from the loss of loved ones even decades after they have gone. If you understand the true grieving process, this should be expected. I’ve heard numerous times that grieving people have been told by well-meaning friends to “let it go” and “move on.” One woman I knew lamented, “Why does it still hurt?” a year after her son’s death. There seems to be a prevalent misunderstanding that “healing” means it doesn’t hurt anymore.
But this process of retriggered grieving isn’t new pain. A new pain is something that is an event that is happening now and hurts now. Most often, this is a painful relationship. Each time that person hurts you, even if it is in the same way repeatedly, it is a new pain. New pain has a way of pulling up past pain to the surface. It’s like pain is a barrel of monkeys with each new pain latched on to a previous pain until you feel like every terrible, painful thing you’ve ever experienced all comes to the surface at once. This is one reason why a person who has experienced tragedy, or many tragedies, can have a very strong reaction to something that may seem minor to someone else. They often aren’t just experiencing that minor thing. They may also be experiencing deep pain coming up to the surface from the past that has been retriggered by the new pain.
This is not to say that a grieving person must remain in some kind of hermetically sealed emotional environment. Minor pricks can be endured, but very deep cuts are another story, especially numerous deep cuts. One of the most painful things a person can experience, in my opinion, is to love someone who has a significant role in his or her life and feel no love in return. The loved person usually displays tell-tale signs of a lack of genuine care, compassion, affection and concern, each one a knife stab in the heart. In this case, it is not the overall situation that is painful, but each loveless incident is another piece of evidence there is a lack of love seen on a continual basis. Every incident is a new pain. Everyday, there is a new stab and a new wound making it impossible to heal from any previous pain.
I look back at the situation my mother was in and it all seems so clear now, especially after experiencing a painful marriage myself. She had been abused by her parents and felt unloved growing up, got pregnant and married my father. She had told me at one point that she didn’t think he even loved her. Then my baby brother died, and she felt it was all her fault. Her grief brought the pain of her past to the surface, and the constant pain of her marriage kept it there. She lived every day completely engulfed in pain. They had diagnosed her as bi-polar, but that never sat right with me. It seemed to disacknowledge the role her grief and past experiences were playing in her emotional state, which had changed dramatically overnight when my brother died. A true bi-polar person can experience cycles of depression and mania irrespective of their circumstances. It’s completely originated by chemicals in the brain. But what if those chemicals are produced by grief, loss and feeling unloved? How could you tell the difference? I think that’s the reason why her medication ultimately didn’t work.
After experiencing significant healing after I separated from my husband, I think now that if my mother would have left our family when my brother died and had a chance to grieve and heal in an emotionally healthy environment away from the continual pain of her marriage, things may have turned out differently. That would have been a desperate and bold move on her part. In retrospect, though, there was enough at stake to justify it. If she had seen that as an option and known what would happen if she stayed, it would have been a Hail Mary sacrifice to save herself. When I saw myself going down this same spiral of pain, retriggered pain and then even more pain, I knew it I needed to get out for my children’s sake. It was a desperate and bold move to divorce my husband while I was a stay-at-home mom with four small children, but I had to save myself for their sake no matter what the cost, no matter what it took. I was worth it.
It’s easy to look back from where I am now and see that I had made the right choice. Healing wasn’t instantaneous; it took years. I remember at first that I had felt like I had just woken up from a coma, and I often felt like I was “outside of myself” watching myself do things. I was adjusting to a new pain-free reality, and it was a bit surreal at times. Finally living in a pain-free environment stopped the cycle of pain and retriggered pain which finally gave my volcano of pain a chance to slowly heal. I just wonder now if it would have made a difference if my mother had done the same. I think it might have. At the very least, I wish she would have tried.
Related Reading: The Denial Of Death, Earnest Becker