As Reggie sits across from me I watch him sit forward on the edge of his chair. His head is bowed. The frayed and stained Atlanta Braves baseball cap indicates his cap is not for decorations. It’s part of his daily wardrobe, used to keep his eyes shielded from the glaring sun as he works the fields of his farm. He’s worn it to every visit to my office.
His rough, calloused hands clench each other so tightly that his knuckles turn white. A tear splashes onto one of his thumbs.
I first met Reggie two months ago. His doctor had recommended he come see me. Reggie was depressed, and rightfully so.
As he told me his story he revealed that six months ago his fifteen year old son was killed in a four-wheeler accident while riding with friends.
My two months of work with Reggie was spent normalizing his feelings and allowing him to reminisce about his son. Reggie would alternate between laughing as he told a funny story about his son, to crying a soul-cry of deepest despair as the pain of his loss cut him to the quick once more.
Today Reggie looks up at me. There are dark circles under his red-rimmed eyes. His sunburned cheeks shine from the tears that are coursing downward like a waterfall of sadness.
Suddenly he falls to his knees and turns his hands palm upward toward me. In a voice husky with emotion and tired from grief, he asks, “When am I going to get over this?”
It’s a universal refrain sung by hearts that have been severely traumatized.
I’ve sung it. Have you?
Relief is what we want. Relief from the elephant’s foot on our chest; from the ever-present, overwhelming cloud of sorrow that we walk in daily; from the stabbing pain in our heart; from the emptied out hollowness that used to be our spirit; from the hopelessness of depression.
What was it for you?
- betrayal by your spouse?
- death of a friend?
- abuse at the hands of a trusted friend or family member?
- losing your job?
- losing your house and possessions in a storm or fire?
- your adult child getting caught up in the affairs of the world and leaving the moral foundation that you worked so hard to instill in them?
- death of your child?
How can we answer the question, “When will I get over this?” The first thing we have to do is define what is meant by “get over this.” What are we expecting? The reason this is such an important step is because sometimes what people want to happen once they “get over this” is very unrealistic.
One common thing that people want to happen is they want to forget about the event and never think about it again. Unfortunately, we cannot intentionally make ourselves forget about anything. As a matter of fact, the more you try to forget about something, the more you remember it. Unintentionally we can forget about many things. But intentionally? It can’t be done.
Memory is rather random at times in what it chooses to stick in your brain. It’s both the blessing and the curse of a memory. We treasure warm memories and return to them often to nurture us. But there are also those nightmare-like memories of horrific events that we want to run from, but cannot. Similar mechanisms in our brain record both types.
So, whatever your memories are stuck in your mind are not necessarily there by your own choosing.
A frequent request people will make of a counselor when asking for help in getting over a trauma is they don’t want what happened to bother them or hurt anymore. This is what “get over this” means to them. However, if we’re talking about the kinds of events that I listed above, to get to a place where it didn’t bother you anymore would require you to have no feelings related to the incident. Simply put, you would have to not care that it happened.
Hear this truth – It will always matter that you were wounded.
The best we can hope for sometimes is that it won’t hurt quite like it did when it first happened. The cliché “time heals all wounds” paints too broad a stroke.
Time helps lessen the pain. However, the ticking of that healing clock moves at a snail’s pace – or slower.
Pain is pain. It is supposed to hurt. People are obsessed with eradicating all pain from their lives, both physical and psychic. It’s one reason that the pharmaceutical industry has profits in the billions of dollars. It’s also one of the reasons that alcohol and drug addiction is so prevalent.
Don’t run from your pain.
Sit with it.
Listen to it. What is it trying to tell you? That you cared? That you were vulnerable? That you are a human being? That you are alive?
Are not all those positive traits?
There are people who life has twisted and scarred so badly that they don’t feel. They don’t care. Those people sometimes become serial killers or mass murderers. They are conscience-less psychopaths.
Can you see that there’s a price to pay for feeling and there’s a price to pay for not feeling?
Another meaning associated with the phrase “get over this” is that life will return to normal. This is a desire to push the reset button on life and return to the way things were before the tragedy. This, too, is impossible.
In truth, things will never be the same again. Never.
You will have to embark on a journey of finding a new normal, whatever that might look like for you. You are now living in a place you’ve never been to before. It is up to you to arrange the furniture, paint the walls, and decorate it in a way that makes sense to you. For some that process takes months, for others years, and for others they never get finished.
So, the question becomes not “When am I going to get over this?”, but “Can I continue living in spite of what has happened?” That question can be answered with a clear “yes.”
Can I tell you how that will happen for you? No.
But you must first rid yourself of any unrealistic expectations as to what it will mean when you get to the other side of the shadow of death you are passing through.
Perhaps I need to share with you sometime how you can continue living. Until then, do not give up. Do not give up.