Nature doesn't require that we heal after psychological injuries. Because most crises are painful, but not mortal, we can continue living, even without healing. Nature does require, however, that we adapt in some way to the changes in our lives that result from crises. If we don't adapt with healthy thoughts and emotions, we will probably adapt with unhealthy habits and traits.
Grieving is the only way to ensure that the injury of a loss heals in a healthy way. If we block our grieving, we usually form the scars of chronic depression, physical illness, or other miseries. These typical consequences of blocked grieving persist for years.
Fortunately, nature is forgiving with respect to healing, even many years after losses. In other words, it is never too late to grieve for unhealed losses in the distant past, and to minimize the long-term consequences of blocked grieving.
A crucial question remains: How do we know if we are suffering from unhealed losses caused by blocked grieving? Answering this question is often made difficult, because we don't easily recognize the signs and symptoms of blocked grieving. That's because they don't resemble the symptoms of grieving for a recent loss. Instead, they are distorted into mental habits, false beliefs, and pessimistic perceptions.
The story of Eben illustrates the difficulties in recognizing the consequences of blocked grieving. The story also shows how the damage done by blocked grieving can be reversed after the problem is recognized.
As you read his story, you will no doubt recognize Eben as a familiar fictional character. You may be tempted to skip over parts of the story that seem well-known to you, but you should not be deceived by its apparent familiarity. Chances are, you have not previously realized that this man's best known traits and habits are signs of blocked grieving.
Unlike the other stories in this book, which are based on the
experiences of real persons, this story is a fanciful elaboration on a
work of pure fiction. Nevertheless, the psychological principles presented
are real, and they have been exhibited in many people I have known.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Doctor, but the man on the line insisted on speaking to you immediately."
"Is it an emergency?"
"He didn't say so, but he insisted that I reach you."
"Okay, put him through."
The operator connected us, but the man didn't return my hello.
"I shall be at your office at nine o'clock this morning for an appointment," he announced curtly.
"Your name, please?" I asked.
"I am your new patient."
"I don't know if I have an opening at nine." I wanted to put him off, but he would have none of it.
"I shall be at your office at nine o'clock. We will speak then."
"Could you tell me your problem?"
He hung up.
"Okay, then, I'll see you at nine," I told the dial tone.
Truthfully, I was annoyed. Yet, I was intrigued. I would have overlooked the man's manner if he had sounded distressed, but his voice carried more arrogance than suffering. It was well controlled and authoritative. His speech was clipped and precise, and suggested a faded British accent. I surmised that he was accustomed to a position of command. Still, the tone of his voice told me nothing of his emotional state.
As I entered the waiting room of my office, a man of advanced years faced me from the center of the room, his eyes fixed squarely on mine. Though he was somewhat stooped and much older than I had expected, his harsh expression told me that he was my new patient.
"Where can we speak?" the old man asked peevishly, preempting any opportunity for conventional greetings.
I pointed to my consulting room. With surprising agility, he whirled on his heel and strode directly through the door. He scanned the room, selected a large chair, positioned himself before it, and sat. Then he cocked his head in the direction of my chair, directing me to sit.
"How can I help you?" I opened, as pleasantly as I could.
"Don't waste my time with questions. I know why I am here. And you will find out soon enough."
I nodded. I doubted that would I like this man, and I also doubted that he would allow me to help him. Assuming he had a problem.
He continued, controlling the conversation. "I am a businessman. I assume you are, too. How much do you charge?"
I told him my hourly fee as I reached for my notepad without breaking eye contact with him.
The man dropped his gaze and sat silently for a minute, as though mentally calculating. His frame, though bent, seemed powerful. His fingers, gripping both arms of the chair, appeared strong and dexterous. His face, encircled in a halo of white hair, looked inflexible and perpetually angry. Then he spoke.
"Fair enough, I suppose. You will remain silent about what I tell you."
I wasn't sure whether this was a question or an order. Nevertheless, I nodded in agreement with the man's wish for confidentiality, and waited for his next statement.
"Do I have your attention?" he asked.
"Yes." This was an understatement.
He bent forward and demanded, "Do you believe in ghosts?"
His question caught me off guard. Realizing that he was serious, I began to question myself how I should answer him.
I finally asked, "Do you believe in ghosts?"
"Give me an answer!" he insisted. "An answer, not a question."
"Many people believe in ghosts." I figured I could qualify my answer later.
"Bah! Ghosts are humbugs. If you believe in them, you are a fool."
I didn't respond, and he pressed forward into his story.
"I saw ghosts a few nights ago. I spoke with them. I even accompanied them. Never in my life had I endured such an ordeal."
Then his voice dropped as he confided his reason for consulting me.
"I am now concerned that I may be insane."
I was gratified to see his features change. His jaw relaxed and his eyebrows lifted, giving his once rigid face a more pliable, more vulnerable appearance. He hadn't asked my opinion, but these changes in his features told he that he was not psychotic. I wrote his concern in my notepad.
He shifted his gaze from me toward the window and continued.
"Four spirits there were, each bearing a message.
"The first was my old friend and partner, Jacob Marley, dead these many years. He came to foretell the others, and to admonish me to hear them well for my own good. He said they would appear, one by one, each at the strike of one o'clock, on three successive nights."
The old man turned his head to probe me with his eyes. Evidently satisfied that he still held my attention, he continued.
"The other three spirits came to accompany me to places I did not want to see, to hear things I did not want to hear.
"The first of the three unwelcome shadows appeared promptly as the clock struck one the night of Christmas Eve. He identified himself as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
"I was frightened, but at the same time skeptical. The ghost disregarded my thoughts, however, and demanded, `Come, Ebenezer Scrooge, to see things as they were.'
Strangely, the old man's countenance transformed as he allowed me to learn his name. His eyes melted into wistful pools, his stiff form loosened, and his voice softened.
"I did not wish to go with him," Scrooge continued. "Yet curiously, I wanted to be in the place he took me: My boyhood home, my old school.
"I saw my chums, laughing and playing, celebrating the Christmas season. We were all so young."
Without warning, a belly-laugh escaped Scrooge, and he collapsed back into the recliner. While he appeared to be reliving his vision of the past, I began to feel his human warmth for the first time.
After laughing for a few seconds, Scrooge quieted and leaned forward again. His mirth had abandoned him, and he looked sorrowful, almost melancholy.
"The other boys were going home for the holidays. I remained at school. Alone." A single tear coursed down his cheek.
"Why?" I asked spontaneously.
He permitted my question, but he searched my face for a few seconds before replying.
"Father. He had sent me away to school when I was but a lad. He didn't want to see me again."
"What about your mother?"
Scrooge couldn't reply, for he had started weeping. When he answered, he spoke with the plaintive voice of a child.
"Dead. Mum died in childbirth--when my sister, Fan, was born.
"Father blamed me for her death. I don't know why. He came to hate me, and he would not forgive me."
I ventured an explanation. "Your father was grieving for his wife. He was angry because of his loss, but he displaced his anger to you."
Scrooge looked at me steadily. Evidently, he considered my remark as potentially useful.
"What does that have to do with me?" he asked.
"I don't know, yet, Mr. Scrooge. But I'm sure we'll find that mismanaged anger has been important in your life."
Then I asked, "May I call you by your first name?"
"You may call me Mr. Scrooge."
I nodded respectfully, and continued. "How old were you when your mother died, Mr. Scrooge?"
"I was six," he replied softly.
"A dreadful loss."
"And how old when your father sent you from your home?"
"You lost your mother, your father's love, and your home in the same year?"
"How did you grieve for these heavy losses?"
I asked this because I wanted to know if Scrooge knew anything about the emotions of grieving. It didn't surprise me that the question perplexed him. He paused before responding. When he finally answered, his face was devoid of emotion, and his voice was flat.
"I accepted my losses."
"I don't think you did," I remarked.
He stared at me sharply, his scowl reflecting more curiosity than annoyance.
"What do you mean?"
"We'll discuss that later. First, tell me more about your travels with the ghost. What happened next?"
"My vision faded to another year, another Christmas. Fan came to see me.
"Fan. My beloved little Fan . . ." He dropped his head, sobbing quietly.
I said nothing, waiting.
Eventually, his tears slowed and he looked up at me. "My dear sister eventually suffered the same fate as our mother. She died in childbirth when my nephew was born."
"Another loss, Mr. Scrooge. Another terrible loss."
Scrooge reflected silently. He stared at the floor, his face frozen as though he were entranced. I didn't interrupt him.
When he looked up again, he looked doubtful.
"My nephew . . ." He started to tell me something, but he interrupted himself. Then he became decisive again. "Never mind."
Scrooge took a deep breath, signalling a new phase of his story.
"Next the ghost and I found ourselves in the offices where I worked as a clerk when I was a young man.
"Musical voices and dancing feet filled the room, and old Fezziwig, my employer, was leading the merriment.
"I watched as that generous old fellow handed my former self a Christmas bonus. I protested that I had not earned it, but he chided me that gifts of the heart cannot be earned. As I relived those moments, I remembered the warmth I had felt in my own heart."
Scrooge paused, frowning. "I'm afraid that I've failed to honor Fezziwig's example with my own clerk."
Then he continued. "The next visit was to my former self sitting with Belle, my betrothed."
Scrooge suddenly erupted in a loud accusation. "She broke our engagement!"
He terminated this outburst with an abrupt retreat into silence, as though he were trying to pull it back. Then he sighed, sat straight up, rolled his eyes upward eerily, and whispered, "Her words haunt me still."
I was startled by Scrooge's sudden shifts, but I remembered to jot down his allusion to this haunt. When I looked up, he had bent forward, grasping his head in his hands. He began rocking himself from side to side.
After a few moments, a seemingly disembodied voice began to recite a solemn litany, giving life to Belle's words. Scrooge had dissociated; he had entered a trance.
"`Ebenezer, another love has replaced me, a golden one.
"`You have been overtaken by the fear of losing.
"`All of your nobler hopes have been swallowed by your obsession with preventing any future hurt.
"`Now, you are owned entirely by your master-passion, Gain.'"
After a few seconds, Scrooge broke his spell by addressing me directly, speaking again in his own voice.
"She hurled that word at me, Gain, as though trying to smash it against my skull. Why? Why that word?" He looked to me earnestly, seeking an answer.
"Because gain is the opposite of loss, Mr. Scrooge. Belle wanted you to see the tragic irony in your gains.
"She spoke of your fear of losing. You imagined that by gaining, you could avoid the pain of losing. Yet, in securing your gains, you ensured your losses. In gaining wealth, you lost Belle."
Scrooge winced with painful comprehension. "My God," he cried. "Yes. It's true. I am a fool. The greatest fool."
"You are not a fool, Mr. Scrooge. You have been blind. And there's no shame in that."
He inspected me cautiously, then said, "You seem to care about this stingy old grouch."
I smiled in reply, for he spoke the truth.
He paused thoughtfully, examining me closely. Then he said, "If you like, you may call me Eben."
He looked embarrassed as soon as this impulsive invitation had escaped, yet a momentous understanding had transformed our relationship. I made a note.
Recapturing his accustomed control, he glanced at the clock and curtly announced, "Our time is up."
He stood up, found his wallet, counted out my fee in 20 dollar bills, counted them again, and handed them to me.
Instead of leaving, however, he sat again.
"I shall resume."
I didn't have an appointment scheduled until noon that day. I wondered how Eben would have reacted if I had told him I wouldn't continue. I quickly wiped aside that thought, grateful that I didn't have to find out.
Eben picked up his story. "The second spirit introduced himself as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
"After the ghost explained that his time was short, we hurried on our rounds. Once, we paused in an impoverished area of the city where the climate was hostile and the environs were dismal.
"Despite these forbidding features, people crowded the streets singing gleefully in their celebrations of Christmas. I hated them. I could not tolerate their extravagance.
"Next, we arrived at the house of my clerk, Bob Cratchit. His meager dwelling was animated with laughing children who were settled around the dining table to celebrate.
"I was touched by the plight of my clerk's young son, Tim. He was a sickly, but good-natured, lad who could walk only with the aid of crutches. Although he was weak and uncomfortable, he was considerate of others, and most affectionate.
"For a few minutes, my own image captured the center of attention at the feast. This notice was most unpleasant.
"It started when my clerk offered a toast to me: `I'll give you Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast.'
"Mrs. Cratchit quickly interrupted him, and protested that my name should not be invoked at such a happy time.
"At first, I thought Cratchit was mocking me. But he chided his wife for expressing spiteful thoughts before the children on Christmas day.
"My attention returned to the infirm boy. I asked the spirit if Tim would live. Indifferently, he said that Tim would die if situations continued in their present courses.
"I did not enjoy this visit and its portents."
Eben paused in his telling, dispelling his intensity by breathing deeply and rotating his shoulders. I welcomed the opportunity to relax my own back before we continued.
"Was that the end of your journey with Christmas Present?" I asked.
"No. We made another stop at the home of my nephew and his wife."
"Fan's only child?"
"Yes. I never liked my nephew much. I could not abide his cheerfulness, and I could not understand him. His mother died in giving him life, yet he was always optimistic, never remorseful. Perverse!
"When I saw him on that Christmas day, he was laughing as usual. He was telling his wife of visiting me in my office the day before.
"He told her, `My uncle said that Christmas was a humbug. He believed it too!'
"His wife was indignant, but my nephew carried on.
"`He's a comical old fellow, and most unpleasant. However, his offenses carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.'
"My nephew was sorry for me. He, who has no money, pitied me. Imagine that!"
"Perhaps he is rich in other terms," I suggested.
"Bah! Can he spend his laughter? Can he buy bread with his friends?"
Though Eben directed these questions at me, he appeared to struggle with finding the answers for himself. I hoped he was questioning whether his own wealth could buy laughter or friends. We remained silent, each with our own thoughts. I made an entry on my notepad.
After awhile, Eben picked up his story.
"I sensed that the day with Christmas Present was approaching its end. The spirit had grown quite old, and I began to fear that I, too, was running out of time.
"As I reflected on this, a distant chime struck twelve, tolling gravely through the thickening fog. I looked about, vainly searching the mist for the phantom.
"Then I saw a dark shrouded figure in the murk. Silently, this foreboding apparition beckoned me with his finger. I knew who he was, and I trembled. I had not cared to know the present, much less to know the future.
"`Are you the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come?' I asked.
"He said nothing, but the folds of his garment slowly bent, signifying his assent."
Eben recoiled, shivering from a horrifying vision that I could not see. Nevertheless, with his voice quivering, he courageously persevered to recount his experiences.
"I beseeched the apparition, `Spirit of the future, I fear you more than any other. Yet I know your purpose is to help me. As I hope to live long enough to become a better man, I am prepared to accompany you with a thankful heart.'"
I made a note of Eben's gratitude to the ghost because I expected it to show its value later.
"I asked the spirit to explain the significance of his visit. Without a word, he pointed, and we moved into the future.
"We were in the presence of a corpse, lying alone, unattended on a bed. With gestures, my guide exhorted me to examine the face of the cadaver, but I would not. I was afraid to know the identity of that friendless soul. I begged the ghost to deliver me from that loathsome place.
"I found myself again in the house of Bob Cratchit. This time, however, there was no noise, no festivity. Mrs. Cratchit was there, and all of the children--save one. They sat quietly, awaiting the arrival of their father.
"When my clerk came through the door, his wife came to him. She asked if he had visited Tim's burial plot. `Yes, my dear.' he said. Then he turned away from her, weeping, and whispering to himself, `My little child. My little, little child.'
"We left him to be comforted by his family."
After Eben dried his own reddened eyes with his handkerchief, he looked at me again.
"I felt a burden of responsibility descend on me, an opportunity to forestall this family's great loss. Yet I feared it might already be too late." Then he looked away again, into his memory of the future.
"The grim specter waved his mantle and we were transported to a quiet country graveyard. He pointed downward to a headstone near my feet. The stone carried a single inscription: Ebenezer Scrooge.
"I was terrified that I was already dead. I pleaded with the specter to assure me that I still had time to change my life. He remained silent.
"His ghostly shroud then collapsed, empty, transfiguring itself into a bedpost. My bedpost. I was alone again in my own room.
"I felt like a baby. I knew not what day it was, nor whether I was sane. I was not even certain that I was alive."
With a deep sigh, Eben shook off the past. His previously somber face lightened. He looked at the clock on the wall, and then squarely at me, showing that he had returned to the time and place we shared.
"Our time is up," he announced with relief.
Once again he performed his payment ritual. He stood up, found his wallet, counted out my fee, counted the bills again, and handed them to me. This time, however, he smiled.
"You have served me well," he said. "You have earned this."
"We're not finished, Eben. We've just begun."
"I know. Now, we can continue," he said, sitting again to resume his story.
"I quickly discovered that I was not dead. I was delighted to find that it was Christmas day. I had not lost a single day of my life. I still had time to alter my ways."
Indeed, Eben appeared delighted in every way. A smile lit his face, and he sprinkled his sentences with rich chuckles as he told me of the events that followed.
"I ordered the largest turkey at the store, to be delivered to the home of my clerk. Then I quickly dressed myself, and hurried out into the daylight.
"I walked directly to the home of my nephew. He was startled to see the changes in me, particularly after our unpleasant encounter the day before. We shared a glorious Christmas day. I had not enjoyed a day so much since I was quite small--since Mum was alive, in fact.
"The next day, I gave my clerk a raise, and I assured him that I would assist his family in every way.
"I was happy! I did not think so much joy would have been possible."
As he returned his attention to me, the smile on Eben's face melted and he turned morose again. Eventually, his countenance settled into the same stern features with which he had first met me.
"What is it?" I asked. "You look disappointed again, and angry. Why?"
"My newfound happiness did not endure. My joy, my hope, my optimism . . . . They seemed so real, but they did not survive two days. That is why I consulted you about my sanity."
"I see. You are concerned that your transformation was not real because it did not last."
I started leafing through the notes I had taken during Eben's story. The pages held a mixture of full sentences, fragments, and single words, and they weren't much help at the time. Nevertheless, I looked at them to buy time to organize my thoughts.
Eben was impatient. Having caught my eye, he looked pointedly at the stack of 20 dollar bills on my desk. With a nod, I assured him that I was working on his problem.
"Don't give up your hope, Eben.
"First of all, you must realize that such profound overnight changes occur only in fiction, not in real life. You can still fulfill your dreams for happiness, but your changes will require more time.
"Secondly, you are quite sane. Indeed, your experiences were not even unusual. You are one of many persons who have dreamed meaningful dreams to light their way."
"Why are you so certain that I was dreaming?"
"Because your first ghost told you to expect the others on successive nights. But they all arrived the same night. Dreams distort time like that."
"Hmm. I wondered about that. But the ghosts were real enough to me."
"Of course, they were. The ghosts were real to you because you created them. Your unconscious mind conjured them to force you to face memories you thought you had forgotten long ago."
"`Unconscious mind.' Another humbug!"
"You wish it were a hoax. You wish you could control your mind. You wish you could forget your losses and proceed as though you had never suffered them.
"In fact, you can't control your unconscious mind. That's why you have never healed from your losses. And that's why these haunts, these memories, impacted your life so profoundly.
"Your own dreams, not ghosts, forced you to face your buried memories. Your dreams forced you, not only to become aware of events long ago, but to see their current consequences, as well."
"Yes. I suppose you are right," Eben conceded.
"Your unconscious mind created the ghosts to help you. This means that you can trust it further to deliver you from the sadness and bitterness you have endured these many years. Welcome the assistance of your unconscious mind, Eben. Express your thanks to it as you did to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come."
Eben briefly shuddered in recalling his visit with that ghost. Then he
asked me, "Why do you say I have failed to heal from my past losses? What losses?"