When we experience significant loss, every aspect of our humanness responds in agony. As the initial physical effects dissipate, they leave in their wake an accumulation of emotional and spiritual responses to the loss. Some of these responses begin to appear only over time, often long after the needed support offered by loved ones and professionals has been removed. Even though the effects of spiritual distress take a tremendous toll, resources for healing spiritual pain are not readily available. In this article, I will examine the effects of loss on the human spirit, and explore means for promoting healing and spiritual growth.
In order for human beings to express joy and live to potential, we must experience love and hope, which is built upon a sense of trust. We must feel connected to others, to God (however defined) and to the world around us. We must feel freed from past wrong-doings and have a sense that our life has meaning and purpose.
If we feel blocked in these areas, our spirit becomes restless and urges us to make things right. Yet, those of us who have suffered the aftermath of a significant loss know only too how we must work to regain our sense of trust and hope, and how we ache for the peace that comes with releasing guilt and feeling forgiven. We are only too familiar with the struggle to make meaning of our experience and to find a new purpose for our lives.
Trust in God, Self and Others
Psychological theory tells us we develop trust early in life. As our basic needs are met, we begin to feel secure. If most of our human needs are attended to, we learn we are worthy human beings. We believe that if our needs were met in the past, they will continue to be met in the future. This belief is the basic foundation of love, trust and hope, and is essential for the development of loving, trusting and hopeful relationships with others, including the Divine.1
As we grow and develop, our lives become structured around an ability to trust. We normally rely on trust during the course of any day: We trust that the sun will rise in the morning; that the physician will make an accurate diagnosis; that the other person will stop at the stop sign; that our children will come safely home from school each day. But what happens to us and our sense of trust if we lose trust in the way the world works, in others, in God?
No longer able to believe in our own abilities to order our world, we become fearful and anxious, threatened and distrustful. We may feel terrified about our lack of control over many of life’s circumstances, fearing that other losses might occur. Would we be able to survive more pain? Our fears can impair our abilities to take risks, as we feel powerless to direct our future.
Hope in God, Self, and Others
In hoping, we look at the situation, no matter how negative, to seek out those few remaining positive elements and build on them. Hope, which stems from trust, is essential for well-being and can make the difference between survival or death. Yet, when we have lost trust in God to protect us or those we love, we may feel unable to sustain hope, becoming passive and pessimistic, doubting our abilities to achieve our goals.
Unconditional Love from God, Self and Others
Riddled by self-doubt, we find it hard to accept that we are worthwhile individuals with strengths and weaknesses. We may feel alienated and lonely, even when there are people around us. Our relationships lack warmth; they do not feel complete. We may strike out in anger at self, at God, family, friends, anyone who has not experienced the loss or who is not suffering. We may be angry at nature for allowing the sun to shine, or the day to be warm. We may be angry at ourselves for being out of control, and for our inability to change the situation. We may feel vulnerable and resentful over our change in status and we may try to manipulate others, or God, in our efforts to get what we need.
Forgiveness from God, Self, Others
An inability to forgive can be demonstrated in blame, revenge, judgment, guilt, shame and/or regret. While we often need to forgive others for injuring and harming us or those we love, more frequently we need to forgive ourselves.
Guilt is a debilitating emotion that is almost always present, to some degree, following loss. Guilt, a feeling of responsibility for failure, can keep us from seeing ourselves as worthy of forgiveness. We feel guilty about things we have said and done, and we regret what we have not said or done. We can even feel guilty when we catch ourselves enjoying life. We may feel absorbed by darkness, and become exhausted trying to escape it. We feel different and cut off from those around us. God may seem very far away; we feel abandoned. We struggle with our purpose in life, finding it difficult to go on.
Meaning and Purpose in Life.
Having meaning and purpose in life drives us forward, keeps us moving, keeps us interested and committed. When we experience a significant loss, our meaning of life and purpose for being become altered and threatened, and may seem even nonexistent. Things that were once important no longer are significant; things that once had no meaning are now paramount.
We need to tell our story over and over, trying to comprehend it ourselves. We may have a sense of inner emptiness, of being incomplete; we may feel that something is missing and that there is no way of getting it back. There is often a subconscious urge to search in order to find what is missing. We may feel frozen in time, like somehow we have been removed from the mainstream of life. Feeling incomplete, we search and we long as we live out the “dark nights of our souls.”
Healing Spiritual Pain
Our dark nights must be honored. During these times we are invited to go silently within in order to determine what energy is being amassed for our next major movement forward. Being asked to endure in patience, in stillness, is difficult to accept. The pain is intense and we are anxious to burst forth from the shroud/cloud that has engulfed us. But the process cannot be rushed. Unhealed soul pain that lies festering just beneath our level of awareness can keep us from living life to the fullest.1
Honoring the dark time does not, however, mean doing nothing. The journey within probably requires the most intense work that any of us will ever undertake. Many techniques can help us in the process. Going about our daily activities in an atmosphere of softly-playing meditative music can help synchronize our own rhythm with the peaceful vibrations of the music.
Finding ways to find joy, to sing and to laugh, even if they have to be artificially created in the beginning, are valuable. These moments of lightness increase endorphins, our body’s own healing mechanism. Journal writing, which is a daily activity of writing down thoughts and feelings, is an excellent way to being to tap deeper wisdom.
It is amazing how we can look back over our journals and identify the road we have actually walked, the progress we have made. Prayer (a dialogue with the Creator) and meditation (quieting the mind while awaiting guidance) are time-honored ways of instilling hope and rekindling spiritual trust. Walking in the quiet solitude of nature allows us to open to the beauty and awe of all that has been created; this starts us on a path of gratefulness, helping to rekindle our faith.
Monitoring our self-talk, our inner dialogue, and consciously changing negative thoughts to more positive ones is a necessary beginning step in increasing our sense of self-worth. Opening ourselves to others and reaching out to those less fortunate can help us reconnect to other people. These efforts help give new meaning to our lives and somehow help dissolve the pain of our own emptiness.
1). Simington, J. (2003). Journey to the Sacred: Mending a Fractured Soul. Edmonton, AB. Taking Flight Books.
Portions of the article Responses of the Human Spirit to Loss were taken from an article first published in Living our Losses Bereavement Magazine, 1996, Spring/Summer, 9-11. Andrew, AB. Otters Publishing
Jane Simington 2011