Proverb by Chuang Tzu, Taoist Philosopher (400BC)
There is an old Chinese fable, which tells the story about a man that was so disturbed by the sound of his footsteps and so bothered by his shadow that he tried to outrun them both. No matter how fast he ran, his shadow kept up with him, and when he put one foot down after the other, he was haunted by the sound of his own footsteps.
He thought his failure was because he wasn't running fast enough, so he ran even faster. He never realized that if he had just sat down and rested in the shade his shadow would have disappeared and there would have been solitude - without the disturbing sounds of his footsteps. But he didn't, and finally he became so exhausted that he died.
Those of us raised in dysfunctional families carry unexpressed grief. This grief is an accumulation of childhood losses. Like the man in the proverb, we try to outrun our grief and never stop to allow time for the grief to come to the surface. We believed that by running faster, we keep away from the grief. Instead we became ill with a physical illness like ME, or depression, had severe anxiety or another diagnosed mental health illness. We were then treated with methods that did not help to relieve the original childhood grief.
The childhood losses we talk about are a combination of what our parents did to us and didn’t do for us. These include the loss of a childhood full of fun and happiness where we felt safe and warm knowing that, however naughty we were, we were still cherished, one where we should have been fed and washed, able to sleep soundly, and be nurtured and guided through life’s lessons, that discipline was firm but fair.
What we did get instead was to be shamed for who we were, criticized, hit, unfavorably compared to others, had our sexual boundaries violated, and/or told we were a problem. This upbringing shook us to the core, and as a result, we grew up feeling isolated and uneasy with others and authority figures. We sought others’ approval and felt guilty when we stood up for ourselves. We couldn't stand criticism and sought out the company of people we felt that were weaker than ourselves.
When we attempt to run away from our grief, we intensify our pain and lose a part of ourselves in the process. Unexpressed grief closes down our options, leading us to live life as a survival course rather than in joy. In order to move on with our lives and create loving and fulfilling relationships, we must complete unfinished business from our past. This is not an easy task because we have to turn around and face our dark shadow including facing losses that we have denied for years. However, we are ready to uncover and discover our hidden grief by removing layers of despair and shame, finding our true selves.
Uncovering grief is like removing layers of an onion. Grief is cumulative, and all the neglect and shameful acts of our past are piled on top of each other. And just like an onion makes us cry, our grief work will help us heal through our tears. We have discovered that our grief will come to the surface when the time is right. Many of us have fear that if we start crying we may never stop. We are terrified of losing control. However, our higher power ensures that we will only be given what we can handle. Physiologically, there are only enough tears to last for 15 minutes of crying. We have tempered fear of our grief with the admission that we are powerless over what happened to us as children. We have started to accept that it was not our fault. We have also begun to admit what is our adult responsibility. We have shared our story to another person to whom we placed our trust. We have begun the journey of lifelong healing and this is the next step – to acknowledge and uncover our grief.
The Grief Process
There is a natural ebb and flow of life and we all progress through it in a similar, albeit very personal, way. When we experience loss or trauma, we psychologically go through a sequence of transformations that assists us to cope with the loss.
Below is an illustration of the grief process:
Grief is the normal, but highly personal, response to loss. The grief process consists of a series of emotions that includes shock, denial, pain and acceptance. Although depression is a part of the grief process, we will not become stuck in it if we are naturally progressing through the process. We become depressed when we have stopped expressing the anger or sadness of the grief process. These are the two most difficult emotions to release.
First, we go into shock and cannot believe what has happened. We deny the truth of it. We think there has been an error or that something will change and bring our loss back. We may renounce the realism, hoping that we may be able to do something that will reunite us with what we lost. Over time, the reality comes into focus and we start to realize that the loss has actually happened.
We then go into a state of anger, blame, rage and frustration, wanting to blame others for not doing enough or blaming others. Once the bulk of the anger has been vocalized, the sadness sets in and it is time to cry for our loss. With this sadness may come hopelessness that the crying will never stop.
Sadness comes and goes and is intermingled with depression and guilt as we realize that there was nothing we could have done about our lost childhood, or feel we may never find happiness or peace. This depression is a ‘healthy depression’, a part of the natural grief process that takes us towards acceptance of our loss. It is the final stage of the saying goodbye to what we have lost, so we can come to terms with how our situation has changed.
Eventually, when enough pain has been dispersed, we start to believe we will make it through the darkness. The healing that has taken place leaves us feeling lighter, and we move towards a sense of peace, acceptance and even – at a later date – joy once more. This is the natural process of grief that affects us all at some point in our lives.
Grieving Our Childhood
Many of us have discovered that grieving our lost childhood may be a lifelong journey but it is hope at each stage of grieving our losses that helps us heal a little piece of our tiny selves. We come to realize that this grieving brings a serenity and an understanding that although we lost many things in our childhood, time will help us make peace with our loss. We start to encounter our true selves as the burden of grief falls away.
This exercise can be undertaken any time in the Program of Miracles and it’s to help us to pinpoint our loss. The starting point is to refer back to Steps 19 and 20. Here we identified incidents of shame and abandonment and this will give us clarity on our buried loss.
In this table we write down not only the loss that took place, what feelings we had about it, and what we received from our family, but also what you could have received if your family was loving. Examples are in the box to help you get started.