Reliving Past Losses

After you uncover your blocked grieving for past losses, you must experience your original pain before you can proceed to the next task of healing. You can accomplish this by reliving the loss and your reaction to it in your memory.

For this task, keeping a journal is useful. You can use a tape recorder, but a notebook is better because it is easier to reference later. Consider this record a diary of your journey to the past. Memories, particularly painful ones, are elusive. Yet, if you have described them on paper or tape, you can preserve them for future use. Later, in reviewing your journal, you may find notes about events or feelings that you have recalled, but have subsequently hidden from your conscious again.

In reliving your past, you can again learn from Eben. Before his experiences with the Ghost of Christmas Past, he thought that he had healed from his early losses. He imagined this for two reasons: because he had forgotten and because time had elapsed. His travels with the ghost changed his mind by showing him, not only that he still remembered, but that time had not diminished the intensity of his emotions. Expect this for your own journeys to the past.

Symbols for Remembering

In his dreams, Eben's haunts were powerful agents that represented his buried memories. They served to capture his attention, and to carry him back to the past. You don't need ghosts or other supernatural agents to help you grieve. Eben's ghosts were merely symbols, and you can use your own powerful symbols to get your attention. These reminders will carry you back in your memory, and act as bridges to help you to detect and exhume memories that you have customarily kept buried.

Your symbols can be tangible or intangible. Old photographs, songs from the past, and treasured souvenirs are tangible symbols that can trigger your memories of significant losses. Look at the photos, listen to the songs, or touch the souvenirs. Allow yourself to recall the people, the events, the hopes, or the objects that you associate with these symbols. Record your recollections and your reactions to them in your journal.

As mentioned above, anniversaries and holidays are intangible symbols that may evoke your memories. Some of these times are obvious reminders of past losses, but others are more subtle. They are messages from our unconscious minds that we have suffered from some crisis in the past, but they do not necessarily identify it.

Memories and Imagination

Whether your symbols are tangible or intangible, reliving your original loss begins with remembering. To make the experience more intense, stir in your imagination. For example, you don't have to wait for a particular time of the year to use anniversary symbols to relive your loss. You can create an appropriate scene in your mind by imagining it is that day.

If your grieving is blocked for a lost loved one, for example, imagine it is that person's birthday. Close your eyes to isolate yourself from today's reality. Imagine a party, first with the person celebrating happily. Then imagine a birthday party without the guest of honor, a party with an empty chair.

In recreating these images, don't merely observe them as though you were hiding behind a camera. If you don't include yourself in the scene, you can't relive the experience.

Above all, be sure to experience each of your emotional reactions to specific events:

Don't forget to record your memories and reactions in your journal for future reference. Remember, the focus here is on your emotions, not your thoughts. If you persist in analyzing your reactions intellectually without feeling them, you may need help to learn how to feel your own feelings.

The exercise above assumes that your loss was a loved one. However, the same method applies to any loss, whether it is a lost job, a lost body part, or a lost dream. Eben relived several kinds of losses in his ghostly experiences.

The chief value of reliving past losses is in breaking through the wall of denial, the first obstacle to grieving. If you can feel your original emotions, you aren't denying them. However, if you can't yet do this, try again, perhaps with a different symbol. If you still can't do it after many tries, you may need to find a helper.


Understanding Blocked Grieving

Having accomplished the task of reliving your loss, you are ready for your next task: developing emotional insight. Insight is a deep understanding of the impact of blocked grieving on your life: why you blocked your grieving in the first place, how it interferes with your life today, and why it is difficult for you to overcome it. Without such thorough understanding, you can't expect to make reasoned decisions about changing your harmful habits.

Insight comes only from looking inwardly, and only you can do this. You can receive help in this process, but no one else can gain your insights for you, and hand them to you on a platter.

Before Eben could heal, he had to gain insight into his anger and its origins. After his mother died, he experienced the normal anger of grieving. Before this, however, when he was much younger, he had learned to subordinate his needs to those of his father. As a result, his father's anger took precedence over his, and Eben's conscience forced him to suppress his own anger. (Refer to Chapter 5, "Mastering Guilt" for more about the conscience.)

Next, his suppressed anger itself became a problem, and this problem generated even more anger. Unfortunately, he was in boarding school where his conscience--and his teachers--discouraged him further from expressing his pain.

Since he was unable to solve his problems, they remained. And since his problems remained, his anger remained, stabilized into his habitual hostility and misanthropy. However, without insight, he couldn't connect his anger to his losses. As a result, he believed that he was angry at the world.

Eben's mental habits were antisocial; they operated against him and against society. Nevertheless, his hostility was a matter of conscience to him because he had learned to obey his father. And he obeyed his conscience, his internalized tyrant, regardless of whether its commands were helpful or harmful.

Eben's habits failed him because they were neither reasonable nor realistic. For example, his stinginess cost him his relationship with Belle. Nevertheless, rather than changing his habits, he defended them for years. He excused his stinginess as moral thrift, and he explained away his envy of happy people as righteousness. In other words, Eben resisted changing his behavior by inventing excuses for his behavior after he acted, rather than using his reasoning mind to decide on his conduct before he acted. This mental habit of rationalizing is typical of the antisocial conscience.

Until he was able to confront his anger directly, and to find its original reasons, Eben could not identify any particular reason for his hostility. The exercises I suggested were designed to help him develop the insight to connect his losses to his anger.

The Courage to See

To gain insight requires courage. We must scrutinize our consciences for signs of harmful habits and prohibitions. Our consciences, even if they are antisocial like Eben's, resist scrutiny, threatening us with punishment if we disobey or question their dictates. That's why forgiving ourselves is an act of bravery.

Gaining insight also frequently requires that we acknowledge how our habits have hurt others. That is, we may need the courage to ask forgiveness of others. Again, Eben provides an example that we can use. The changes he made required all of his courage, not only in facing his ghostly self-revelations, but in facing his nephew and his clerk.

Eben's courage was bolstered by his knowing that he had not blocked his grieving deliberately. Instead, he had been blind to his mental habits because his unconscious mind created his habits and attitudes. His habits formed to meet the short term goal of protecting himself from pain while he was a child. Not surprisingly, they failed him as an adult. Yet, this became obvious to him only after his visits with his ghosts.


Changing Habits

As important as it is, insight alone does not change habits. Habits are broken only by action. Actions required to heal from your blocked grieving include managing your anger-energy, mastering your guilt, addressing your sadness, or eliminating whatever other barricades you have erected to healing.

Eben's example showed how one person deliberately developed a plan for healing from the past by changing his habitual patterns of relating to others. Was this change risky for him? It certainly was. He risked rejection, misunderstanding, and further isolation in his new life. Nevertheless, he accepted these risks and proceeded to heal.

Must you decide to take risks? Almost certainly. For example, if you fear success, you may be crippled by the paradox of the great wish:

If this superstitious thinking threatens losing your chance for success, you would be better off losing your superstition. Yet, losing a superstition is hazardous--according to superstition, that is. To lighten your perceived risk, consider the alternative: Not reaching for your goal is worse than losing it, for it means losing your dream--something you live for. Even if you reach your goal and then lose it, you are better off than you are now: You can still dream.

It may help you to reflect on the experiences of Katie, Calvin, Rachel, Frank, and Melody. Each of them took risks to heal from their losses, and each was rewarded.

Resisting Change

Lack of courage is not the only reason we resist changing our behavior patterns. Our mental habits also reinforce our behavioral habits. Mental habits and behavioral habits are different, even though they interact. Mental habits are long-lasting, reflex-like patterns of thinking, while behavioral habits are consistent patterns of acting. (Mental habits are discussed further in Chapter 9, "The Skills of Healing.")

Eben used the mental habit of rationalization to reinforce his habits of behavior. All of us rationalize at one time or another, and we all use other mental habits to maintain our balance. That's why mental habits are sometimes called "defense mechanisms" or "coping mechanisms." Ironically, however, our defenses don't defend us; they defend themselves. Moreover, they help us cope only when our lives are stable, when we need defenses least. They fail us during crises, when we need defenses most.

In changing our habits, the important goal is, not to eliminate all of our mental habits, but to identify which habits interfere with our lives. These are the ones to change.

Remember that mental habits are difficult to break, and that your reasoning mind is critical to your success. Using your reasoning mind can be hard work. It is far easier to use habitual thinking patterns, even if they are harmful. Further, relying on mental habits is lazy thinking, and like lazy behavior, this doesn't get the job done.

Motivation to change your mental habits is also crucial. You might try imagining your own deathbed, as Scrooge did. Looking at your life from that perspective might inspire you strongly to change harmful habits before it's too late. If you foresee having regrets on your deathbed, be grateful that you have time now to prevent them.

Remember that practice is essential. You didn't reach your current position overnight, and you can't expect to reverse yourself in a night's work. Prepare to practice hard. Make your grieving one of your highest priorities. After all, you are doing it for yourself.

It cannot be overemphasized that blocked grieving is often rooted deeply. Chances are, you will need professional help in completing the work you have already started. Don't be afraid to find a helper. Chapter 10, "If You Need More Help," shows you how to find a helper you can trust.

Finally, don't give up. It is never too late to learn to grieve, even if your greatest losses occurred many years ago.