Shortly before the COVID-19 global pandemic forced us all to shelter in place, I received this write-in. Truth be told, I put it aside, because I had no idea how to respond. Over the past two months, tucked away at home, life as I knew it gone in an instant, my own demons began to make appearances—anxiety, existential dread, grief—sure, some days felt liberating, but many others unraveled me. I must acknowledge that the column to follow is no exception to the insight: we teach what we need to learn.
How do I start caring again? What I mean is that as a rule, I find I don’t want anything, and if I do sort-of want something, I don’t care that I want it. I do like my Sunday mornings out for breakfast as my only me time, and “Oh hey, you want join me…okay…” Or, I may need to buy a car part to make my car better, but “oh, you need money to get a hotel room so your daughter can tour the college she has been accepted at…okay, here is $150…whatever…doesn’t matter…I don’t really need it…” Hell, I don’t really need anything, or really anyone.
If I was sitting with you, the first thing I’d ask would be, why do you want to start caring again?
Do you feel you’re able to answer that? A wonderful way to engage soulful questions is to write. When you have some private time, give it a try: I want to start caring again because….and write for at least thirty minutes, without any interruption, and without thinking too much—just go with it. And do it more than once. I suspect this exercise will have you brushing up against your very deepest longings, and your most painful losses, and that information will be important as you take steps to recover yourself and care again.
That you want to care again is so beautiful. Caring is an expression of connection—the very best of our humanity shows itself in acts of care. I suspect your “lack of care” speaks to the disconnection you have suffered for a long time, though I am not speaking about disconnection from others—it’s clear you’re awake and generous. Rather, it seems you have no idea how precious you are. It seems the disconnection you are experiencing is a disconnection from yourself—and a disconnection from love. I imagine you feel so alone.
This indifference you bring to your own self—that you resigned yourself to you not mattering all that much—this sort of resignation always has its origin in a loss so great, a grief so big—a grief that took root in one’s tender years. There are natural laws of love, and when those natural laws of love are violated in childhood, the only way to cope is to press those violations into exile. That buried grief follows us through every moment of our youthful development and into adulthood. Inevitably, the grief gets stuck—it stagnates, or what the modern world calls depression.
Stagnant Grief and the Struggle to Connect with the True Self
Grief is a natural part of life, and when our losses are natural, though they will bring us to our knees, we do eventually get up again. It’s a matter of time. But when our losses are unnatural, and particularly when those losses occur in the most tender years of life, grieving doesn’t happen—it doesn’t happen, because it can’t happen. Little ones don’t have the developmental ability to grieve in the way adults do. Adults can look in on loss, while little ones “become the loss”.
It is a part of nature’s law that a child is held in the love of the parents who conceived of them and invited them in. It is a gross violation of the natural laws of love to abandon or abuse one’s child. When those natural laws of love are violated, the child’s psycho-spiritual development falters alongside their grief. There is no exception to this.
Violations of love in early childhood, violations that fundamentally distort the parent-child love dynamic, create a wound that will act as a thief through the child’s developmental years. The wound is quite literally self-defeating. The child will live a life distracted by their woundedness, and they will live alongside a grief that gives rise to a humiliated sense of self (shame).
Such humiliation is at the core of all self-destructive behavior. Shame interrupts the will of the true self and replaces it with the “will of the wound”. The humiliated self will unconsciously seek repeated confirmation of smallness, worthlessness, unlovability.
Think of stagnant grief as the psychological version of an auto-immune disease. Our mind is meant to be led by the true self, but stagnant grief promotes the will of the wound to the helm, compromising our ability to live life deeply connected to our true self. The challenges stagnant grief creates are many; such grief will manifest as mental and/or physical disease, most commonly anxiety/depression, which lends itself to substance abuse, chaotic-painful relationships/co-dependence, or avoidance of intimacy all together.
Releasing the Corpse
I think of stagnant grief as a corpse, a corpse that we carry into our adult life. Imagine trying to create a spontaneous, even-keeled, joyful life with a rotting corpse flung over your back—the very best of intentions will never be able to override the weight and stink of that corpse. If you want to care again, if you want to recover your true self, then then you must lose the corpse.
It would not be unusual if you are using substances to cope. Many attempt to shed the corpse by using alcohol and drugs (prescription or otherwise). It’s tempting to medicate ourselves, because when we’re high or drinking or on pain killers, it feels the corpse has fallen away, and we experience what we’ve been needing our whole life—relief. The fall into addiction, for many, is about chasing that feeling. It makes perfect sense. But it doesn’t work. An intoxicated brain doesn’t alter the truth—it just perpetuates the denial of the corpse and will exacerbate all versions of poor mental health that come along with hauling a corpse.
The path to recover one’s self is to take the steps to let go of the corpse—to let it go, and to give it a proper send off. This is not an intellectual activity. Any quest to recover what is real and true will always be spiritual in nature.
**Martin Prechtel speaks eloquently to grief, including generational grief, in his gorgeous book, The Smell of Rain on Dust. It’s where poetry meets healing, in nature, and dances on the heart. I credit Prechtel with my deepened understanding of grief.
We are each greater than the sum of our parts. It is in that space of greater-ness that we locate our true self, the self that saturated our infant being-ness, before the ego developed, before the world had its way with us. Within that self is the portal to the love we are, and the unconditional love of God, which is our birthright. It is the safest, most honest dwelling space in the universe. In that space, trust isn’t a choice—it is a state of being.
I don’t know if we can return to infant being-ness, but I do know that when the corpse is taken off our back and tenderly held in our arms…when we let ourselves wail for all that was taken from us, for all that is gone forever…when we tell the truth about all those violations of love, and when we grieve who we would have been, had the laws of love been honored…when we do this, some space opens up within us. It really does. And there is a feel to that space. It might be where grief brushes up against God.
It’s confusing at first, because when we’ve lived with grief for so long, this unfamiliar visitor to this new space leaves us curious. But it’s that curiosity, and the magnificence of that unfamiliar presence, that can inspire us to keep on with the burial. With every shovel of dirt, we edge closer to the spiritual dimension of our existence. It’s a sacred act to dig a hole for a corpse—it is an act of great reverence, of great love. It’s hard work, too, but keep at it. When we resist the hard work of digging that grave, it’s a version of colluding with the will of the wound, and that never ends well. It only leads to more grief.
I don’t know if you are religious, spiritual, or perhaps someone who rejects the concept of God straight out. But none of that matters—the truth is bigger than any idea or any practice we adhere to. The truth is within you, in that space of greater-ness, and when you recover You, you will encounter It. Or, as you approach It, you will encounter You.
This is what I know for sure: You are precious, and you are loved. Don’t let the wounded people around you convince you otherwise, and that includes the wounded you. If you really want to care again, you will have to be brave and get okay with being uncomfortable. I need to say that again: If you want to care again, you will have to be very brave and get okay with being very uncomfortable. At times the work will feel harder than going through life with a corpse on your back, but trust me, you can do it.
If you are abusing substances, you will need to temper that. For real. If you are using drugs and alcohol to deny the presence of the corpse, you are going to have to “put your arm around that” and get going with that dimension of your work. If you struggle to manage your day to day or your week to week—if chaos is as familiar to you as the rising sun, consider that substance use may be part of the problem. Twelve step programs will not only help with easing the substances out of your life, but they happen to provide the very spiritual path that will help you lay down the corpse and dilute the will of the wound.
It’s worth noting, substance abuse can be a blessing for those with a heavy corpse, because while the “non-addicts” can pull all sorts of tricks to deny the corpse, it’s pretty darn hard to hide the mess addiction creates—it’s like a big old corpse unto itself. And so those who step up to treat substance abuse are positioned to shed the corpse more readily than most of us—and they do, which is why those in twelve step recovery are often some of the most humble, generous, awake human beings you will ever meet, far more than us “sober people” still hauling a dead body.
If you do not need that version of recovery, then find a therapist, a spiritual director, someone who can bear witness to your corpse. It is never too soon, and it is never too late, to seek help with the corpse. What we fail to bury in this life, we leave for others to bury, most usually, our children. Love tells the truth. If we cannot deal with the truth of our own corpse, we miss out on bringing forth all the love we are, and again, our children and other loved ones lose out.
I recommend you find a therapist who is trained in the Internal Family Systems therapeutic model (IFS) which is a preferred mode for approaching traumatic wounding in childhood.
I want to share something personal, which I don’t often do in these columns.
You brought me to a place of great vulnerability as I worked on this response. In considering you, my own corpse demanded attention. I found myself having a vested interest in your healing, and while I wasn’t sure why, I just had this sense that with the world breaking under my feet—with my need for more pillars of light to support me—the light I needed could come from you.
I had this image of all of us—every last one of us—laying down our corpses and walking away with light all around us. I saw your resignation—your “I don’t need anything or anyone” energy evaporate, and I saw all those folks who are in your intimate orbit stunned by the miracle of you, and overjoyed at having the chance to get to know the you they never met.
And then the strangest of all the thoughts: when you experience the love you are, I will too. I realized that this is how it works. And the irony didn’t escape me, for if COVID-19 has taught me anything, it’s that we’re all in this together.
With much love,