By guest writer, Kurt Stiefvater
Clutching the soaked tissue in her hand and brushing the hair out of her eyes again and again, she stares down at the floor and breathes in a memory from the past four months.
This is not the first time that Ashley and I have met. She first came into my office with her mom eight weeks ago, but the trauma of finding her friend’s body was too intense and she just could not talk about it. Ashley had been in a fog and told me quite clearly that she didn’t want to talk. So we passed the time talking about less painful things in her past 16 yrs of life – things like school, softball, and the ups and downs of her family.
When our session ended, I thought I might not see her again. She had reminded me a little of Ben, the teen I met a few years earlier who fired me in the lobby rather than participate in our first counseling session. I had to go out to the parking area where Ben was leaning against his mom’s locked minivan — to let him know that it was okay to not meet today, that he was welcome to come back another time. Six weeks was perhaps way too soon to talk with a therapist about having one’s father die of ALS.
Just as Ben eventually came back months later, Ashley was back and though she wasn’t exactly sure why, she was ready to talk this time. In the past two months she had immersed herself in getting caught up in school – tutoring in trig every week, meeting with teachers, arranging to take a night course after school – that sort of thing. She had found a boyfriend and life was a little better now. Though there was snow on the ground outside, she had a lot more color in her face and some energy that replaced the vacant stare last time we met. Ashley did in fact have a pretty smile.
It didn’t take long to talk about the suicide and how Ashley was really doing. We discussed how she’s fooling everyone into thinking that she’s pretty much back to normal. But life is not normal for her at all.
Ashley revealed that she thinks about her friend every day. While her anger is focused on her friend’s family and her peers at school, today there is no anger towards the one who left. In her grief, Ashley yearns for some additional time with him. She feels the guilt time and time again for going to the movies that night and not going over to her friend’s house to hang out. That night and the next day get played out in her mind again and again at unwanted times during her day. Ashley sadly accepts that some answers may never come. She desperately wants to know when her life will get back to normal again.
One of the first issues we work on is the guilt. I try to help her see how normal and predictable guilty feelings come to us when we experience loss – even when they are not deserved. I explain that taking on guilt seems to be a natural defense against an even less tolerable feeling that is helplessness.
In my life I have seen people experience a profound sense of helplessness or powerlessness in moments of excruciating pain and suffering. Gifted spiritual writer Richard Rohr defines suffering simply as whenever we are not in control. Our difficulty in tolerating this pain causes us to try to get control over something, or anything. So we go through the moments before and after our loss in great detail. By assigning blame to ourselves we can tell ourselves that we weren’t helpless, only regrettably clueless, perhaps.
Unfortunately, if we feel guilty, we may decide that we should suffer as a means of atonement, and we feel that we don’t really deserve any more true happiness in our lives. I’ve seen people parked in this painful spot for years.
While Ashley’s healing journey is just beginning, I think that she will eventually come to see that her guilty feelings are actually regrets — that these normal feelings are a part of being human and living a full life. Ben regretted not having told his father he loved him nearly enough. He wasn’t guilty of harming his father, and didn’t really need to punish himself for spending time with his friends when he could have been with his dad. I’ve met a lot of bereaved teens who express their sense of guilt by saying “if only” – as in if only I had come home sooner, my dad’s heart attack would not have killed him and he’d still be alive. We punish ourselves needlessly it seems, when we experience a deep sense of guilt for things which were not our actually fault or were beyond our control.
Having regrets is okay in the sense that it tells us that we don’t believe that we know everything. Developing an attitude of humility and openness creates a space for us to learn and grow. Learning to forgive ourselves for things we regret is part of a spiritual journey – a journey that replenishes our spirit. As psychologist and author Kathleen Brehony might say, a journey that also leads to greater wisdom.
When we can recognize and label moments of helplessness and share the feelings, we begin down a path of empowerment. It involves a healing process of surrender and letting go. That may seem paradoxical, but with letting go of an illusion of control, eventually we can gain a sense of peace and acceptance.
I tell Ashley how pleased I am that she is not trying to walk this journey alone right now, that she is right to seek a guide, and to share the pain and alone-ness or loneliness that she’s experienced. I sense that healing from the loss of our most important relationships is accelerated in the context of sharing — in new or renewed deeper relationships.
Grief is emotionally and physically exhausting. We benefit by being together to draw on each other’s energy and caring. Experiencing a devastating loss knocks us down. We are frightened to get back up and become so vulnerable again. But we find it so much easier when we have the courage to take the hand that reaches out when we are down there on the ground.
In this article the names were changed to respect the confidentiality of the teens.