How Does Healing Happen?

Healing is a funny thing. In some ways, physically, there are elements to healing that take place without our permission, participation in or even knowledge of; processes of the body that are mysterious to us laymen, put there for our protection by a loving Creator. And yet, healing also needs our involvement. We must keep a cut clean, stay off a broken limb, take our antibiotics, rest and so forth. We can either help our healing or we can ignore what is needed - or, worst case - we can actually do things that are detrimental to the healing process.

    This is equally true in the healing we all hope for following a loss. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, says it this way, “We must participate in our own healing.” This was illustrated for me so personally and vividly through a recent physical injury. 

    One morning this spring I got up and put my left foot on the ground and experienced sharp pain. I could barely stand to take a step. My arch, heel and ankle felt stiff, weak and any weight on it at all was excruciating. I rested, researched, determined I probably had plantar fasciitis and tried some remedies off and on at home. I asked friends what they thought or had experienced and tried some of their suggestions. My approach was kind of hit or miss. Some days I felt better, other days worse. I thought it would eventually resolve itself so I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have.

    Eventually, I realized my pain was crippling my ability to live my life fully so I went to the podiatrist. He gave me one exercise and told me to ice it. I tried it five or six times, it didn’t seem to help. I bought new shoes - which did help, at least while walking - and, again, hoped it would get better with time. It never did. 

    Finally I was sent to physical therapy and I knew that if I didn’t really get with the program I could say good-bye to long walks by the lake, paddling longer distances, hiking or even being on my feet for extended periods of time. In short, I was limiting myself by not fully addressing what was needed for healing. And so, armed with this obvious solution, I began to do EVERYTHING the physical therapist told me to do. I never walk barefoot anymore, I do my list of exercises religiously twice a day, I go to all my PT appointments, I adjusted my weightlifting to accommodate the injury. In many ways, I now participate in my own healing....and my foot is so much better.

    Lesson learned. The same is true for us as we heal in grief. Will we ever be the same? Probably not. A significant loss is a life and heart-altering event. The goal is not to get back to where we were, but instead to grow, to reach a place of acceptance, with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in life. In order to do that, we will have to participate in our own healing. 

    Emotional healing doesn’t just happen. Grief rips us apart. In fact, that is what the word means: “to be torn asunder”. We are often told time heals, and I will say that it seems to have a contribution to make to the healing process, however it offers no magical healing all on it’s own, it’s just this one small ingredient that may or may not help. We must mourn, grieve, and do the inner work to move forward. Healing is not an outward force that just “happens to us” along the way, it is warrior work, something we must determine we desire and be willing to work towards. 

    Just as I had to become committed to the healing of my foot, which is almost totally better, I have to be committed to the healing of the gaping wound in my life left by loss. So many times, I see widows in particular (which is who I mainly work with) seem to refuse to take any steps. They refuse to read, to see a counselor, to take good care of their bodies, to seek out supportive friendships, to rest, to address the inner issues that come up as they mourn, to challenge themselves to do what is needed. While I can only guess at the reasons why some seem to desire to stay stoically stuck in their grief, I do know this: None of us will heal unless we participate in our own healing in a proactive way. And, at the end of the day, this requires a desire for healing for ourselves.

That is something no one can do for us. It is our own journey, our own warrior work.

    About fifteen months after Phil died I was sitting on the couch crying. I was lonely, felt a big forgotten, and I was tired of life. To be clear I had consistently done things to facilitate healing but I still struggled with unhealthy and unhelpful - even self defeating -  thought patterns. I vaguely thought at some point a door would open, someone would reach out a hand, the way would become clearer. In that moment I had a sudden realization, an epiphany of sorts. I remember the moment clearly. I realized that no one was coming to save me. No one was coming to swoop in and fix my world. It was up to me. 

I had to become my own hero and if I wanted a brand new life, with new purpose and meaning, I had to build it. 

Healing and a new beginning were not going to be magically dropped in my lap. And, honestly, I was sick of crying. Sick of feeling lost. Tired to death of myself and my constant fears. 

It was time to saddle up. To become my own knight on a white horse, my own hero. To do my warrior work.

    I won’t pretend that healing is easy. In some elements of healing I can understand the process. However, there is an aspect of healing that seems mysterious - like how a cut heals itself. Some evenings I have taken a walk at sunset and something in my heart just settled, felt at peace. I don't know how or why. Some piece of life just "fit" again. Some of it is action oriented, some is a mental toughness/thought control I have had to learn, some of it is about silence, reflection, rest, a time to restore my body and soul. It is a divine mixture of hard work and grace, a balance of pushing myself and also resting my heart and body, of pressing forward while honoring memories, of reaching out and letting go. 

    One thing is for sure. It won’t happen without me.

What are some things you can identify that have helped you heal?