Eben's Losses

I looked at my notes, but I didn't have to. Eben's story had moved me deeply, and its details were prominent in my mind.

"When you were six years old, your mother died. Soon thereafter, your father rejected you, and sent you away to boarding school. You lost, not only your mother, but your father's love and your home. These losses would be serious injuries for any boy."

"I thought I had forgotten. I thought I had left behind my childhood miseries when I became a man."

"Yet your dreams told you that you haven't forgotten. You have lived every day of your life paying the price for your remembered losses.

"You told me that Belle's words still haunt you. This means that her message still resides in your unconscious.

"She tried to teach you then, but you didn't learn. You can learn her lessons now.

"Remember what Belle told you about your fear and your obsession with gain. She told you that your fear of losses compelled you to gain wealth. She also told you that, in your obsession with gain, you had lost your relationship with her. And with this loss, you lost any hopes and dreams you may have harbored for a rewarding marriage."

Eben was listening solemnly, and I continued.

"You have never healed from these losses."

"I have always heard that time heals all wounds," he injected.

"To use your words, that old saying is a humbug, an outright fraud. Time doesn't heal broken hearts any more than it fixes broken furniture.

"Only work, the work of grieving, can bring about healing. This is the work you must do to recapture the joy and satisfactions you experienced on Christmas day."

"I have also heard," continued Eben, "that we should forget the past. How can I heal if I can't forget?"

"That's another humbug. The past is never forgotten. We continue to hold our memories in our unconscious minds.

"We can only pretend to forget our losses by driving our memories of them from our conscious minds. We must not do this; if we do, our injuries never heal. Instead, they fester beneath the surface, and erupt in painful boils.

"Your failure to heal resulted in a lifetime of bitterness, hatred, and isolation from humanity. Just as your father blocked his grieving and drove you away, you drove away everyone who could have enriched your life. For instance, your nephew."

Skeptically, but cordially, Eben asked, "How do I know these things are true?"

"Because your ghosts made them plain in your dreams."

"I thought I had healed after the ghosts visited," Eben challenged. "I repented. I showed my intentions in good deeds. I made known my contrition to the ghosts and to my family. What's more, I enjoyed a wonderful day."

"Your penitence helped because you began to address your guilty conscience. But your relief was not lasting because you still haven't finished healing from your losses.

"Don't worry, though. You haven't lost your opportunity. You can still heal. You can still secure the changes you want in your life. But you have much work to do."

Eben seized the idea that work would bring the rewards he sought. Working was his major strength, and he was eager to capitalize on his abilities.

"Let's get to it, then. What shall I do?"

Eben's Grief Work

"You must learn the skills of grieving to achieve lasting rewards, and you must practice them daily. I'll show you how to do this by using the experiences you have related to me.

"First, prepare yourself to change some habits. You must learn to approach crises in several new ways.

"You must start recalling your losses each day. For example, recall the details of your loneliness while you were at school alone at the holidays. Do this as you did when you were with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Feel again the sadness and fear you felt then. This exercise will bring you close to the events as they occurred originally."

"Why must I recall my feelings? They were painful then, and they are painful now."

"Your dreams with the ghosts showed you the reasons. These experiences showed you how you can heal by reliving your losses. Before the dreams, you were bitter, anticipating another mocking Christmas day. After the dreams, you were delighted in your ability to enjoy the rewards of family and friends."

"That is true enough. So I must re-create my dreams with the spirits while I am awake?"

"That's a good start. But that's not the end of it.

"Next, you must learn to manage your anger--the anger you felt originally, and the anger you will feel while you recall your losses.

"When you were a boy, you were forbidden to show your anger to your father or to the school authorities. As a result, you hid it--even from yourself. You are no longer a boy, though. Now you can safely feel your anger and describe it."

"Do you mean I should tell you that I feel angry at my father?" he asked. "That sounds difficult."

"Yes, that would be difficult. It will be easier after you learn to say you were angry, not at your father, but because your father sent you away from home.

"`Angry because . . .'" he repeated. "That is much easier to say."

"It's easier because it is true. We can't feel angry at anyone any more than we feel hungry at our empty stomachs."

Eben chuckled at this absurdity.

"Besides, you know you weren't angry at your mother for dying. You were angry because she died."

"Yes, I can see that."

"And you were angry because you lost Belle. And because Fan died. And because Marley died.

"Each of these losses brought you problems, and each time you felt angry, not at someone, but because you were faced with a problem. That's what anger is like."

"Why is anger so important to me, anyway?"

"Because the false beliefs you learned about anger have blocked your healing. You learned early in your life to mismanage your anger. You learned from your father, who displaced his anger to you. He was angry because he had lost his wife, but he took out his bitterness on you. However, in spiting you, he spited himself. He lost, not only his wife, but his son."

Eben gazed downward, absorbed in thought. After a few seconds, he noted quietly, "As I have spited others. And myself."

I was pleased that Eben was able to acknowledge his hostility, and to see its connection with his father's behavior.

"As a boy, you learned by your father's role modeling, and it has hurt you. As he rejected you, you have rejected your nephew.

"Fortunately, however, you also have other role models, helpful ones."

"Old Fezziwig!" Eben interjected excitedly. "He was generous and considerate. I want to be like him."

"You will be your own version of Fezziwig, however. Don't forget, your life has been different from his in the past, and it will be different from his in the future. But you can still make his generosity yours."

Eben's Depression

"There's another reason for learning to grieve, Eben. Remember the profound sadness you felt while seeing your sister, and while visiting Belle?"

"Of course," he said, his eyes beginning to moisten.

"You haven't felt that sadness regularly, but your tears right now show that it is quite close to the surface. In fact, you would have felt your sadness every day if you hadn't covered it with anger."

"Yes, I feel it now."

"Hold that feeling, then. That sadness is the emotion of chronic depression. Because of your bluster, few others have thought of you as a depressed person, but you know better. And I suspect your nephew knows."

"Maybe he does. He has always been kind to me, but I have never let him know that I experienced loneliness or sadness."

"He probably guessed it. After all, the two of you shared similar losses. You both lost your mothers."

Eben hunched forward in his chair. "As we speak of these things, I feel warm toward my nephew. Maybe I always have, but didn't know how to express such an unfamiliar sentiment."

"You will have many opportunities to express your feelings from now on. You can look forward to enjoying many hours of company from your nephew in the future, not only on Christmas, but whenever you want. I'm certain that he will gladly welcome his Uncle Eben into his life."

Eben's Motivation to Change

Eben started weeping openly. "Your promises tempt me, but I fear I won't be able to carry through. I can see that I have spent years hiding from my past, and I am afraid I won't be able to break that old habit."

"It won't be easy for you, Eben. You must be highly motivated to carry through your work of grieving.

"To motivate yourself to break you old habits, force yourself to think of the consequences of not breaking them.

"Consider, for example, your deathbed. Recall the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come when he showed to you your own corpse. You know that you don't want to die alone, friendless and unmourned. This image can motivate you. It can help you break your habit of rejecting love and closeness."

"That was certainly true in my dream." Eben's eyes filled again with tears as he pondered our conversation.

"If I can break my old habits, the three hours I have spent with you will have been as portentous as my visits with the ghosts.

"Yet, I am nearly overwhelmed with all that has transpired here. Please, tell me again why it is so important that I remember the losses of the past."

"Each of your losses are marks inscribed on your life. To appreciate your life fully, and to assure yourself that you haven't lived a mockery, embrace these milestones. Own them, and you own your life."

Eben's features relaxed into a smile, and he gazed gently at me. Then I noticed the time.

"Our time is up for now," I said.

Eben looked at the clock and then at me again, flustered that he had overlooked the time. He quickly stood, fumbled for his wallet, counted out several 20 dollar bills, and pushed them at me. This time he didn't count the money the second time.

"I regret that I overlooked the time," he said.

"Don't regret it. It's a good sign. You have loosened up more than your wallet. You've begun to change a habit. And your openness to change is essential to your healing."

Eben dropped his head, adopting the posture of a modest boy who is embarrassed by praise for a real accomplishment.

"Thank you," he said. Then he smiled as he rose from his chair to leave, and reached to shake my hand.

"At last," he told me, his eyes still moist, "I have found hope and trust. These are gifts that I can savor without the fear of losing them.

"However," he said, turning serious again. "This brings up one other thing. Do you remember that I asked you to keep our conversations confidential?"

"Of course. The things you have told me won't go beyond this room."

"Well," he said, "I am releasing you from that pledge. If my story can help anyone else, you are welcome to use it. I mean it. This gift is proof of my trust."

Over the next few months, Eben visited me regularly to find help in his long-delayed work of grieving. As he healed from his losses of the past, he plunged eagerly into his new life, enriching it with family, friends, and new acquaintances. He especially enjoyed fostering a special relationship, a grandfatherly role, with his new extended family--Bob Cratchit, his wife, and their children.

The following Christmas was not a humbug for Eben. By then, he had realized many of his wishes. Moreover, he could discuss regretting his past losses without retreating into hostility or depression. Instead, he could use his anger and sadness to strengthen his hold on his new resolve to share his life with others. In his new life, he harbored no regrets.

Eben's Lessons

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, as originally told by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, is fictional. Yet, Dickens provided profound psychological insights into grieving that we real people can apply to grieve for our past losses.

In a way, the validity of Dickens' insight is surprising. It was Sigmund Freud who is credited with discovering that blocked grieving leads to depression, and that dreams reveal unconscious memories and conflicts. Yet, Dickens wrote Scrooge's story several years before Freud was born.

Of course, Freud studied human mental processes in the light of reality, whereas Dickens created fiction. Yet, Dickens' only major departure from reality was in healing Scrooge overnight. In real life, recovering from past losses requires weeks, months, or sometimes years.

This should not discourage you, however. Eben's story, as presented above, shows how it is still possible to overcome the problems of blocked grieving later in life. Besides, as Eben discovered, the process of healing can be, not only rewarding, but adventuresome as well.

Eben's Four Tasks

Scrooge's story showed that failing to heal leads to serious chronic disabilities. Young Ebenezer had suffered serious losses in his life. If he had healed normally after each of these losses, his life would have been quite different.

However, eventually, Eben healed by using his dreams to perform four tasks: First, Marley's ghost helped him to uncover his uncharitable attributes as signs of his past; second, the Ghost of Christmas Past helped him to relive painful past losses in his life; third, the Ghost of Christmas Present helped him to understand their significance in his current life; and fourth, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come motivated him to change his habits to avoid regretting them on his deathbed.

These four tasks--uncovering, reliving, understanding, and changing habits--are the same tasks we use to recover from past losses.

Scrooge's identifying traits--hostility, miserliness, loneliness, and rejection of his fellow human beings--were all results of his blocked grieving. These traits are readily traced back to his unresolved anger and his fear of further losses. Dickens evidently knew the results of unhealed losses, probably from his own life experiences.

Unlike grieving after a recent loss, resolving the problems of blocked grieving is complicated, and we automatically resist it. The following sections describe what you can expect to experience in each of the four tasks. Some of them may seem overwhelming to you. Be assured that you can receive help. In fact, most people who suffer from blocked grieving use the assistance of a professional helper to heal.


Uncovering Blocked Grieving

Before we can heal from our past losses, we must recognize the connection between our past losses and our current habits, beliefs, and other traits. That is, we must uncover the fact that blocked grieving accounts for our current emotions and attitudes.

Deceptive Symptoms

Searching for losses buried in our memory is like a treasure hunt; it can be difficult, but also rewarding: Uncovering hidden reasons for our current unhappiness starts us on the path to recovering our health. The main challenge in doing this is in recognizing these signs and symptoms, for they are deceptive, and we tolerate their deceptions well.

The deceptions originate when we unconsciously distort our normal emotions of acute grieving to meet our immediate psychological needs. That is, to avoid the discomfort of our anger, fear, guilt, or sadness, we disguise these feelings as something else.

As a boy, for example, Eben converted his anger to hostility, and transformed his fear of loss to thrift. With these disguises, his anger for his early rejection masqueraded as his rejection of the world, and his intense fear of loss wore the mask of stinginess.

Eben's pattern is not uncommon. Many sad, frightened people are grouchy and stingy. Yet, few of them know that their grieving has been blocked. That's because they didn't deliberately deceive themselves; as with the rest of us, their unconscious minds deceived them.

One way our unconscious minds deceive us is by turning our symptoms into habits. As familiar habits, they are tolerable, and this tolerance makes the symptoms difficult to uncover. Unlike the unfamiliar symptoms of grieving for a recent loss, the symptoms of blocked grieving are old and familiar. And we resist giving up old, familiar things, even if they are harmful to us.

Moreover, the habits of blocked grieving work for us in our everyday lives. If they didn't, they wouldn't be comfortable. Scrooge was comfortable with his stinginess and grouchiness because they served him well in his banking career, for example. Further, our habits remain comfortable--and invisible--as long as our lives are stable.

Times of Crisis

Of course, our lives aren't always stable. Crises can intervene--stressful events that knock us off our foundations. During these critical times, we need extraordinary ways of coping. But when we try to rely on our old, familiar habits, they are likely to fail us. That's when our habits can become irritating, and expose our blocked grieving.

By exposing our habits as remnants of our past losses, a crisis offers us a chance to grow. That's when it is easiest to learn new, more effective ways of coping.

Many kinds of events can be crises, because crises are determined by the specific details of each individual's life. Changing jobs may be a crisis for one person, and the death of a pet for another. For Eben, the advent of one particular Christmas was a crisis.

Regardless of the event that brings a crisis into your life, you can welcome it as an opportunity to grow. If a loss brings your crisis, this suggests that you have blocked your grieving in the past. If so, learn from it, and be as grateful to your crisis as Eben was to his ghosts.

Midlife Crises

For Eben, the advent of one particular Christmas triggered his crisis. We don't know whether prior holidays were crises for him, but do we know that he was concerned about running out of time. We also know that his old habits failed him.

Many people face crises of age during so-called "midlife crises." Such critical periods, which can occur at any age, destabilize us by reminding us that we have lost, not only our youth, but many of our youthful dreams. For example, many people in midlife suddenly realize that their habits have propelled them in one direction for several years. If they perceive that they haven't corrected their courses appropriately to reach their long-term goals and dreams, they may feel that time has stolen their opportunities.

Fortunately, however, midlife crises also bring new opportunities. The most pivotal of these is the opportunity to grow--to uncover blocked grieving, to relive past losses, to understand their significance, and to change harmful habits.

In short, your crises offer you the chance to learn to heal from losses in your distant past. Prepared with these skills, you can proceed into the next segment of your life, confident and optimistic about your dreams.

Listen to Others

You don't need to depend solely on spontaneous crises to help you uncover your blocked grieving. You can use other ways to discover whether you suffer from blocked grieving. One way of doing this is by listening to others.

Listening to others can help you because your loved ones and friends can see things in you that you can't see. In Eben's case, for example, the main sign of his blocked grieving was hostility--a trait that was obvious to others, but not to himself.

Our disguised pain is often recognized by others because we have transferred it to them. Many people try to escape their pain by abusing alcohol or other drugs. These people may or may not be aware of their hostility, but it rarely escapes the notice of those they hurt.

This is also true for people who suffer from the enduring sadness of chronic depression, or from physical problems--real and imagined. Many of them believe they keep their pain to themselves, but their problems consistently hurt their loved ones.

So, if your loved ones have something to say about your behavior, listen to them. They may help you uncover your blocked grieving, and thereby help you to start on the road to a more rewarding life.

In some cases, a group of a person's loved ones and friends gather, usually with a helper, to confront the person with frank descriptions of his or her harmful habits or behaviors. This type of crisis is used frequently in alcohol and drug abuse treatment programs, where it is termed an intervention.

Interventions are valuable because they can help undermine the person's denial concerning his or her habits. If the person is sufficiently distressed by this instability, he or she may be motivated to change. Such persons may also discover, as many do, that their drug abuse is a form of blocked grieving.

The most important aspect of an intervention is not the group process, but the safe time and place for a person to listen. That's why a group isn't even necessary; a conversation between two persons who care for one another is also an auditorium. Fact is, it doesn't matter how many people are willing to speak to you. Listen. In hearing someone who cares for you, you are receiving a gift.

If you are isolated, as Eben was, by all means find a professional helper. That person will speak to you frankly, and won't judge you. Above all, remember this about your loved ones and others who care for you: They don't have all the answers for you. They can only raise the questions. Finding the answers for your life is your responsibility, for you must live that life.

Anniversary Reactions

Eben was lucky in uncovering his blocked grieving with the help of his ghosts. Not many people are that lucky. Most of us must use less dramatic means to discover clues to our unhealed losses. Even in this, you can learn from Eben. He experienced the holiday blues, with Christmas as his most miserable season.

Holiday blues are anniversary reactions--consistent times of each year that bring depression, anxiety, unpleasant thoughts, or physical symptoms. They are important clues to blocked grieving because their dates point to the times of our original losses. Yet, because our memories of past losses are often hidden, these events aren't always obvious.

If you experience recurring annual depressions but don't consciously recall any major losses on the dates in question, look at the calendar. If you still can't remember crises on those dates, ask your family if the dates are significant to them.

Anniversary reactions usually relate to lost loved ones, but they may also point to other losses. For example, people may experience anniversary reactions on the date they lost their health, or when they lost a new business or a promotion, or on the anniversary of the day their last child left home. Regardless of their sources, use them to your advantage. You can read more about anniversary reactions in Chapter 2.

Fear of Loss

The exaggerated fear of loss is another clue to blocked grieving. The key word is exaggerated; exaggerated fear is terror. A degree of fear of loss is normal, but normal fear doesn't interfere with people's lives. Terror does. Therefore, you may suspect that you suffer from unhealed losses in the past if you are terrified of losing your job, your marriage, your health, or your material possessions.

The exaggerated fear of loss leads to exaggerated reactions to losses in either direction--overreaction or underreaction. For example, say that you have recently lost a loved one. If you overreacted by immediately sinking into a deep depression, and if you became overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or thoughts of suicide, you have overreacted.

On overreaction to a loss probably means that you have been sensitized to your current loss by blocked grieving for previous losses. Your sense of hopelessness and helplessness means that you believe that you can't heal, and that you are powerless to change your fate. This was true for Rachel. If it is true for you, there is no better time than now to learn to grieve, and to prove that you are neither helpless nor hopeless.

If, in contrast, you have lost a treasure and you don't react emotionally at all, the scars of a previous unhealed loss may be covering your new injury. If so, your new loss will add to all of your past losses, and you can expect to live your life burdened even further.

For example, the fear of success is often an exaggerated fear of loss. If you refuse to take any risks to achieve your fondest wishes and ambitions, you fear success. The fear of success is fear of loss in disguise. Look under it for signs of your real fear. Of course, it always feels risky to change your life to try to achieve your dreams, but this normal level of fear is easy to recognize and overcome.

The fear of loss also shows itself if you refuse to take beneficial losses--losses that you know would be good for you. Examples of taking beneficial losses are giving up alcohol, quitting an unrewarding job, or ending an abusive relationship. People who won't take beneficial losses are convinced that they can't heal after any loss, including their associated losses.

In summary, you must uncover your past losses before you can heal from them. You may discover the harmful habits of blocked grieving for yourself, or your loved ones might tell you of signs that could be disguised symptoms of grieving. You may suspect blocked grieving if you experience profound anniversary reactions, if you are terrified of losses, if you overreact or underreact to current losses, if you shrink from success, or if you refuse to accept beneficial losses.