Communicating on a Spiritual Level Can Produce Healing, Part 3
Continuing from Examples to Personal Experience
How Spirituality Can Help Us Heal
Individuals experiencing grief may feel removed from daily life, unable to carry on with routine activities. In situations of experiencing grief and trauma, the result is that it is felt on a deeply interior, private, or personal level. In such circumstances, healing from trauma and grief can therefore be enhanced through a strong spiritual foundation, as it is at the heart of the emotional human experience. A strong spiritual foundation has been shown to help guide individuals through traumatic and grief-inducing experiences including surviving the Holocaust, school shootings like the Columbine incident in Colorado, terrorist attacks like the Oklahoma City Bombing, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Regardless of the situation, having a spiritual foundation can generate a stronger healing when dealing with grief and trauma.
Although I have written extensively on this topic to include examples and incidents from Oklahoma City and Hurricane Katrina, I have opted to omit them from this article for the sake of brevity. This article is still rather lengthy; however, if you choose to have me to continue to elaborate on my thoughts, I will gladly do so. Just comment below the article and let me know.
Spirit as the Source of Healing
Spirit Versus Religion
Much like the challenges faced by both Viktor Frankl and Elie Wiesel, the challenges of spirit versus religion also played a major role for those who endured their own survival from the events of the Columbine High School shooting. Faith and religion did play a role for several individuals in dealing with their own healing. For Liz Carlston, her faith and commitment to the LDS religion helped to find meaning in her own survival. Yet, it was a spiritual understanding, her own internal processes, which provided an opportunity to turn toward family, community, and friends for healing. Marjorie Lindholm, on the other hand, only turned toward religion when months of isolating herself and pulling away from her family members left her feeling more troubled and more desperate. In that moment of "God searching," and going to church, she felt even more out of control and less healthy. It wasn't until she realized that her family was still there for her and still loved her unconditionally that she was able to start the long process of healing and self-forgiveness. As she says, her own writing is a part of healing. Rachel's brother and parents sought their own answers and meaning to the senseless violence on campus through their faith and found their spirits led through biblical passages and Rachel's own written words. But as Darrell Scott reflected on the moment he heard about the shooting, "This is a spiritual event."
Arranging and Rearranging the Stones
What We Can Take From This
Spirituality has been defined as the concept of ultimate or alleged internal reality (Cousins, E. 1992), an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the "deepest values and meanings by which people live" (Sheldrake, P. A Brief History of Spirituality, pp. 1-2). Why, then, would spirituality be so necessary for a deeper sense of healing? If healing is to ensure that the person is made "whole," or complete, then by definition, a full healing process must entail some kind of inner spiritual journey. Chaplain Kate Braestrup, in her book Here If You Need Me (2007), describes such internal struggle after dealing with the grief and trauma she experienced after losing her husband when he died in a car crash. In a familiar understanding, in her coping with such an incredible loss as the loss of her husband, she turns to her first experience she had with death--a dog who died when Braestrup was 18:
"When my shiny black sheepdog, Cornelia, was struck and killed by a car, I buried her myself...With my own hands, I covered her with dirt. To keep animals from disturbing her remains, I gathered rocks from the surrounding fields and woods and piled them atop the grave...the [rocks] were not artfully arranged as my faithful Cornelia deserved. So I pulled apart the pile and started stacking the rocks again, more deliberately this time, with greater care...I built and rebuilt that pile at least six times. For as long as I was fussily gathering, placing, and judging stones, then casting them aside, I still had a dog. When I placed the last stone on the grave and walked away, my dogless life would commence. It was a moment I desperately wanted to postpone" (pp. 32-33).
Kate's experience with grief and trauma is one that she consistently redefines, as she works as an embodiment of peace and comfort for the living after undergoing the stress and challenge of losing a loved one in the wilderness of Maine. As a game warden chaplain, she is called onto the scenes of numerous search and rescue missions. Some are successful; some are not. Some are the results of a child wandering away from a campsite; others are ATV accidents; some are individuals dealing with drug and alcohol addiction; some are the victims of foul play. As she not only works as a voice of love, peace, and comfort for the living, she also has had to contemplate her own grief as she faced widowhood and raising her children without her husband by her side. How does one continue forward in such immediate loss?
In many religions there is a prescribed ritual for mourning. In many ways, it is understandable how such rituals can provide peace and comfort to those who are faced with such loss. Jewish law, for example, sets aside a full year for mourning the death of a parent. The twelve-month period is divided into psychologically poignant intervals with decreasing intensity--seven days, thirty days--with various rituals and requirements until the veil is removed from the tombstone and the year's mourning time has ceased. Mourning is complete, and while the dead are not forgotten, life is now emphatically the business of the living.
Kate Braestrup recognizes that such prescriptions hold their purpose, but to many individuals, such prescribed time frames may not be enough. She says very simply, going back to the moment of the burial of her dog, "Some day, the last stone must be placed, and we must walk away, but when? I think if I were my own minister, I would answer that question this way and I won't pretend it's not hard:
Go ahead. Arrange and rearrange the stones on top of your beloved's grave. Keep arranging those stones as long as it hurts to do it, then stop, just before you really want to. Put the last stone on and walk away. Then light your candles for the living. Say your prayers for the living. Give your flowers to the living. Leave the stones where they are, but take your heart with you. Your heart is not a stone. True loves demands that, like a bride with your bouquet, you toss your fragile glass heart into the waiting crowd of living hands and trust that they will catch it"(p. 196).
Utilizing spirituality as a means of a deeper healing is not to ignore or deny the pain and suffering that goes along with grief and trauma. Instead, it's recognizing what that grief and trauma means for the individual sufferer. At the end, however, it is necessary to recognize that one's heart must not be forgotten in the process.
Be Kinder and Gentler to Yourself!
The spiritual inclusion of a healing process after trauma and grief is the care that is given to the living heart. It is the process of recognizing that the heart can be mended and re-formed after an incident of grief and trauma. The spiritual process, according to Braestrup, is one that reminds us to love. In her book Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, she says, "What are those of us still here on earth to do in the face of loss? Jesus has some advice: When he is no longer physically present, he tells his disciples, then those who really loved him, that they should go and love others--lots of others--just as they had loved him...But you don't have to take it from Christ. Maude in the movie Harold and Maude says the same thing...Love more...If your heart breaks, let it break open. Love more" (pp. 137-138).
"Loving more" is a call to be kinder and gentler to oneself, and to generate connections with those whom we love. In the face of such pain as caused by grief and trauma, it is easy to close off the heart, to be consistently generating our memorials for the dead and/or change in circumstances, for the moments that caused such excruciating pain and a sense of loss of the soul. The soul needs to regain its place within the human living existence. Having a strong spiritual foundation allows the person suffering after grief and trauma to remember his/her own heart. It makes it possible to keep on breathing and keep on loving in a way that is not isolating or filled with anger. Each person's story of absolute survival has also been one of the revival of the spirit.
Viktor Frankl finds his own reconnection with life, purpose, and meaning through a small prayer found in the pocket of his concentration camp uniform. That small prayer allows him to reconnect with his own heart, to find a purpose in survival. In small connections with other human beings, he is also able to help others reconnect and find peace within their own hearts, to allow themselves to be open to love again.
Wiesel, in many ways, is still arranging the stones on his own memorials and graves. He feels "condemned to live," because he cannot let go of his hurt, his anger, and absolute feelings of loss after the grief and trauma of what he lived through during the Holocaust. As he continues his own important work with the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, talking about his experiences, writing and speaking as he feels so compelled, it is a personal hope that his heart will break wide open. When he is able to walk away from the last stones, he may no longer feel "condemned" to live, but may actually find the sweetness in life after such horrors as he has lived.
Marjorie Lindholm is, arguably, also in a place much like Elie Wiesel's. The opportunity for healing is present, yet it is still challenging to come to terms with the bitterness, tears, and numbness, that have defined such a crucial part of her identity for so long. The healing process may not ever be as strong as she desires, and she may also find herself at times feeling "condemned to live as long as God Himself." Yet, much like Wiesel, she is also learning that she is not alone in her struggle. It may still be possible to continue to live a long and fulfilling life defined by the bitterness and anger that has influenced it; however, it is also not as healing as perhaps she would like it to be.
Liz Carlston has experienced a full spiritual healing. She realized that when she turned toward her community, when she allowed her heart to break wide open, she was not only able to provide compassion and understanding for someone else, but she was also participating in her own spiritual awakenings, and her own personal healing. She was allowing herself to admit that she had been through incredible trauma and was still able to open herself up to joy, love, and peace.
Darrell Scott and Beth Nimmo are arguably in a place of fluctuation, feeling uprooted in a lot of ways. Their family's foundation has changed tremendously. Yet, they found their own strength to not only write their story, but to speak to audiences all over the world. They have been a tremendous source of comfort and understanding for the families who had to undergo the trauma of the most recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which took the lives of young children. Their writing initially started as a way to rearrange the stones on Rachel's grave, but anymore has become a source of acceptance, as well as a gateway to peace and understanding. Darrell's words about the children who send him emails saying they had been contemplating taking their lives until getting involved in Rachel's Challenge and reading Rachel's story are truly touching. "Those emails will never replace Rachel, but they certainly help us find meaning in her life."
Turn Toward One Another
In a world filled with such uncertainty and absolute cruelty, is it possible for anyone to fully heal from his or her own personal grief and trauma? It is true that life will never be defined in the same ways as before the traumatic or grief-inducing events; however, life can still carry on a sweetness and beauty if we remember to turn toward each other and not away from one another. We can heal and still love and be loved after such events when we remember to turn inward, and to give ourselves the spiritual attention from which our "wholeness" springs.
LOVE YOURSELVES AND ONE ANOTHER UNCONDITIONALLY!