Between tearful sobs, Mary confides the painful story of how her life has become meaningless and of how parenting issues and marital problems have escalated since the suicide death of her teenage son, four years before. Listening to her as she speaks — bent-over, eyes averted, monotone voice — one can conclude that Mary is depressed, the type that results in reaction to a major loss.
Yet as a seasoned therapist, I need to delve deeper, for I have learned that depression is not a true diagnosis; it is a collection of symptoms, all alerting a keen observer to a much greater concern. Her physical appearance, her expressions of billowing emotions, her struggles with mental clarity, her difficulties in relationships and her declarations that life has lost its meaning, all tell me that every aspect of Mary’s being is struggling to reorder a life that had been torn apart.
Mary identifies feelings of guilt and shame. “How,” she cries “could I not have seen his struggles?” Mary describes a loss of trust in self, in her decisions, in everyone and in everything.
Tears flow as she tells that no longer can she attend her church. She finds her time there too pain-filled because it seems to intensify the challenges she is having with her long-held beliefs about heaven and hell. Beliefs that she once accepted without question and even found comforting, now fill her with anxiety about what her son might be experiencing. She fidgets in her chair and wrings her hands as she expresses feelings of powerless over her son’s fate.
Mary’s narrative is a story of soul pain.
Defining Soul Pain
Because of the depth of the work I do, I am often asked to define soul pain. I have come to acknowledge that soul pain is the sum total of the physical, mental, emotional and social distress experienced following a tragic life event. Yet, it is more than the sum of the distress of these human aspects. Soul pain is a crisis of the human spirit. It is suffering of the deepest kind. It is a plague deep within. It is a wrestling with the imponderable questions of life and death, of heaven and hell, of resurrection and reincarnation.
Three Phases of Soul Growth
While soul pain is distress of the most intense kind, it can be a journey of immense growth. It is a journey that may take a long time, for it is a journey to the interior of one’s being and then back out again. It is a journey that can bring total transformation.
I like to compare this journey to that made by a caterpillar in its process of metamorphosis. 1 We come into the journey struggling, on our bellies as it were, like the caterpillar. In this first phase, while we begin to question the meaning of our experience, we attempt to obliterate the discomforting challenge to the status quo of our belief system.
By Phase 2, we have succumbed to the exhaustion of the struggle. As it is for the caterpillar in the cocoon, we are now blocked from the rest of the world. We become absorbed in our attempts to find answers to the unceasing questions that pour forth from our inner depths. Over time, we acknowledge that many of the beliefs to which we have held so firmly do not hold up under the scrutiny of our lived experiences.
The cocoon wears thin. We feel our wings. We are ready to take flight. Phase 3 is upon us. We are keenly aware that we have become something quite different. While we may not yet know what all the changes are, or what we are now to accomplish, we do know what beliefs we can no longer retain.
The experience of the tragedy has shaped and molded us. The soul pain has been the catalyst for the journey inward. There we have discovered a deeper and truer purpose for our lives. While we would have wished to have learned these lessons in an easier way, we are deeply grateful for the soul pain that has wrought our transformation. 2, 3
1) Simington, Jane. and VON (1999). Listening to Soul Pain (Audiovisual).Souleado Productions. Edmonton, AB: Taking Flight Books.
2) Simington, J. (2003). Journey to the Sacred: Mending a Fractured Soul. Edmonton, AB: Taking Flight Books.
3) Simington, J. (2010). Setting the Captive Free. Edmonton, AB: Taking Flight Books.