Healing Tragedy and Loss: The How and the Why

Printed in the Summer 2019 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Hebert, Barbara ,"Healing Tragedy and Loss: The How and the Why" Quest 107:3, pg 21-23

By Barbara Hebert

One only has to keep up with current events to find tragedy and loss across the globe. None of us is immune from it. Surely all of us will experience tragedy and/or loss at some point through such things as death; abuse; neglect; homelessness; terrorism; poverty; aging; divorce; crime; illness; work and life transitions; pain; miscarriage; infertility; violence.

Theosophical Society - Barbara B. Hebert currently serves as president of the Theosophical Society in America.  She has been a mental health practitioner and educator for many years.Dealing with tragedy and loss comprises two separate but equally important components: dealing with the situation in an emotionally healthy manner and understanding the why of the situation. In order to move forward in our spiritual journey, we need to work through tragedy and loss—emotionally as human beings and spiritually as part of the evolutionary journey. It is a profound process that requires time, effort, and insight.

It is important also to realize that healing may not occur on some levels. For example, someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness may not experience physical healing, but that does not mean that this individual can’t experience emotional healing and spiritual understanding.

The first component is dealing with the situation in an emotionally healthy manner. Doing this involves a process of several steps. It does not happen overnight, but  requires time and effort. Because it is a process, we do not take the various steps in a linear manner; we work on them simultaneously.

The first step occurs once we are over the initial shock of an experience. It focuses on the feelings elicited by the situation. We must allow ourselves to feel whatever feelings arise by simply allowing them to surface and experiencing them. This is not to suggest that we should wallow in the feelings, but we don’t want to suppress them either. Feelings are part of this human experience; therefore experiencing them and learning to deal with them are part of the process of becoming fully human.

What human components are involved, for example, in dealing with the loss of a loved one? Many people experience profound sadness, anger, loneliness, and possibly even guilt, just to name a few. Allowing oneself to actually feel these and any other emotions that arise, without judgment or suppression, comprises a critical part of healing. It is also important to allow ourselves to express feelings in a way that does not hurt ourselves or anyone else.

Listening to our internal self-messages is another crucial part of the process. In this step, we begin to observe ourselves and our thoughts objectively. What thoughts arise? After tragedy and loss, some individuals might think, “If I had only been a better [spouse, child, friend], then maybe this would not have happened.” Paying attention to how kind (or, more likely, unkind) we are being to ourselves with our thoughts provides us with essential information. It is important to examine these thoughts in an objective manner, such as, “Is it accurate to say that if I had been a better [spouse, child, friend], the loss would not have happened?” Very few individuals have the power to change the outcome of a given situation.

On  the other hand, none of us is perfect; therefore it is likely that we could have acted differently at times. At this point, it becomes imperative that we begin to accept our own imperfections and learn from them, which seems to be part of the human journey. If a loved one dies and a survivor has regrets about what has been said or done as well as about what has not been said or done, then he or she works to accept what has occurred and takes active steps to make sure that nothing is left unsaid or undone with others.

Accepting one’s imperfections goes hand in hand with the third step, which involves forgiving oneself for not being perfect. Self-forgiveness plays an extremely important role in this process. Most of us do not intentionally hurt others, yet we cause hurt unintentionally. We act in ways that we regret. We say things that we wish we hadn’t. Recognizing that we do our best, given the circumstances in which we are functioning, contributes to the process of self-forgiveness and ultimately helps us to deal with the painful events of life in a healthy manner.

Another step is to see ourselves realistically. As human beings, we tend to be self-involved. We tend to think we are the only ones who has experienced such an event, or we think we are the worst person in the world, and so on. These statements are simply not true. We are imperfect human beings, doing the best we can in a confusing and complicated world. All of us are learning, and no one is the only one, or the worst, or any other distortion our minds may concoct. We are emanations of the Divine, and as such, we are neither the best nor the worst. Tragedies and losses happen to everyone.

The final step in the process of dealing with difficult situations includes finding an empowering and uplifting support system. The importance of sharing heartache, pain, and suffering with others who can provide emotional support cannot be overstated. This support system may, and probably should, include a mental-health professional who can provide insight and guidance regarding the steps one needs to take.

 

The second major component of healing from tragedy or loss involves trying to understand the why. The Dalai Lama is purported to have said, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways—either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.” Metaphysical ideas, readings, and theories can be helpful in providing the structure, that is, the why in understanding and dealing with misfortune in a healthy way.

For many years, I worked as a mental-health professional, both as a clinician whose expertise was in child sexual abuse and as an educator who worked with graduate and postgraduate counselors. Inevitably these young professionals would encounter clients who had experienced situations that defied explanation. For example, one client was a young woman had been sexually abused by numerous individuals in her lifetime, abandoned by her father, and neglected by her mother. Another example: a teenage client whose stepfather took pornographic pictures of her and posted them on websites.

Not surprisingly, new professionals would at times experience their own secondary trauma in hearing about the clients’ horrific situations. My role as an educator was to help them put the situation into perspective so that they could facilitate the client’s healing process. My first question to the counselor was almost always, “What is your worldview?” That is, “How does your worldview help you understand why these horrible things can happen to someone?” My role was not to share my worldview, but rather to elicit the counselor’s. The answer to that question varied from individual to individual. Some new professionals had already contemplated this issue while others had not considered it at all.

Why is it important to understand a clinician’s worldview? From my perspective, helpers (professional or nonprofessional) must have some structure, usually spiritual or religious, that explains why. Without an understanding of why, many people will struggle with the intensity of the work, may have difficulty in facilitating the healing process, and may burn out. Furthermore, if the counselor has an understanding of the why, then it is easier to facilitate the client’s own understanding of why these things happened.

Therefore it is critical to clarify one’s worldview, especially in relation to why these dreadful situations occur. For me, Theosophy, or the Ageless Wisdom, provides that explanation and has enabled me to work with sexual-abuse survivors, both children and adults, for many years. The Ageless Wisdom teaches that we are on a journey of spiritual evolution in which we are expanding our consciousness so that at some point in the future (after lifetimes of learning and growth), we will become fully self-conscious human beings. We will have learned all that there is to learn in this phenomenal world about being human and therefore will have become perfected.

One aspect of Theosophy that has provided support through the years involves the belief that experiences are not attributable personally. That is, God (or whatever one calls that Ultimate Reality) is not angry at or punishing an individual. It is common for individuals who experience tragedy and loss to blame themselves. Even very young children (ages three to five) believe that they have done something to cause their pain or believe that they could have done something to stop or alter the situation. Adults also take on responsibility and self-blame for incidents that have nothing to do with them. One such example is a mother whose adult child was accidentally drowned. This mother was very angry with God for allowing the death to occur and was firmly convinced that if she had given more money to the church, her child would have lived. The recognition that incidents like this are not personal can provide a very important element in healing tragedy and loss.

Along these same lines, my belief in reincarnation—another major concept in the Ageless Wisdom—has provided support for me. The belief that we have multiple lives does not negate the importance of each one of those lives, but it does put each life into perspective.

It may be useful to invoke the age-old analogy of school: perceiving each lifetime as a grade in school (although there are certainly more grades than in contemporary schools). The ending of each grade is bittersweet for many: pride in accomplishments and lessons learned, excitement about moving onward, sadness about not seeing friends for the summer.

We can put unfortunate events in perspective by perceiving each lifetime and its tragedies and losses in the same light. Of course it does not obliterate the pain, which may remain for many years, if not for the entire lifetime, but we realize that the tragedy and loss is, from the perspective of many lifetimes, temporary.

The concept of karma also gives us answers to the why of tragedy and loss. Karma, from the Theosophical perspective, is a universal law based upon harmony. Everything that we think, say, and do impacts the harmony of the universe, and this law works to restore that harmony when it is imbalanced. H.P. Blavatsky writes: “Karma creates nothing, nor does it design. It is [the human] who plans and creates causes, and Karmic law adjusts the effects; which adjustment is not an act, but universal harmony, tending ever to resume its original position, like a bough, which, bent down too forcibly, rebounds with corresponding vigour.”

If we believe that we are here on this earth to learn and to grow—to transform ourselves spiritually—then it makes sense that our life circumstances facilitate this growth. It’s important to add a caution here: although karma facilitates the process of learning through action and reaction or cause and effect, we really do not have much of an understanding of this Universal Law. In The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, the Mahatma K.H. tells Sinnett, “You know nothing of the ins and outs of the work of karma—of the ‘sideblows’ of this terrible Law,” and later added,  “Have another look at Karma . . . and remember that it ever works in the most unexpected ways.” Although we speak about karma as if we understand it, we have only a vague grasp of its workings.

One might be inclined to consider unfortunate events as punishment or payback for misdeeds in a previous incarnation. This is akin to the earlier discussion regarding self-blame. It seems more realistic instead to view such incidents as opportunities for growth and expansion in light of the concept of harmony and balance, however little we may appreciate the opportunity at the time. Most individuals can look back and see that times of difficulty resulted in the greatest personal or spiritual growth. This realization reaffirms the Dalai Lama’s view that tragedy in life can challenge us to find our inner strength. Whether we encounter our own personal misfortunes or we work to help someone navigate their way through difficult circumstances, the Ageless Wisdom teaches that karma gives us the opportunity to grow.

Perhaps the Theosophical concept that has been most helpful to me in this area is the belief that each of us walks our own path toward becoming fully self-conscious human beings, and that each and every one of us will attain this goal at some point. We have no knowledge of where another person is on their particular journey, or of the specific challenges on which another person may be working, but we can trust that the end result will be the same for everyone. As the late TS international president N. Sri Ram wrote, “This concept . . . is perhaps the most inspiring truth of Theosophy.”

For example, a five-year-old child was sexually abused and through that abuse contracted a sexually transmitted disease. The child was terrified to talk about her experiences as well as about the person who abused her. Law enforcement investigated but was unable to identify a perpetrator. Counseling continued, of course, but the child maintained her silence.

When we look at this tragic situation from a Theosophical perspective, we begin with tremendous compassion for this child and those who love her. We also recognize that we don’t know anything about this child’s journey and what she has chosen to learn in this particular incarnation. We know that this is one step of the journey for this soul, and it will eventually result in spiritual growth and ultimately in full self-consciousness.

This understanding does not, however, mean that we accept abuse, nor does it mitigate the suffering endured by this child and her family. We must use our discernment, as discussed in At the Feet of the Master, to balance metaphysical understanding with an awareness of the pain. The balancing of understanding and awareness challenges us to engage in compassionate action. In 1907 Annie Besant wrote, “Your duty is to do all you can to help others. Do not take Karma as an excuse for indolence, as I am sorry to say many people do.”

 

In conclusion, dealing with tragedy and loss in a healthy manner involves two crucial components: working through the human response and finding a worldview that helps us understand the whys of the situation. In order to work through the human response, we must feel our feelings; observe and change our negative self-messages; accept and forgive ourselves for our imperfections; and find or create a support system. The second component incorporates the need for understanding why tragedies and losses occur. The Ageless Wisdom fulfills the second component through its teachings about the impersonal nature of situations; reincarnation and karma; and the soul’s evolutionary journey to becoming a fully self-conscious human.

Along with these elements, we balance healing and understanding with compassion. Healing and understanding underlaid with compassion allow us to deal with misfortune in a healthy way. As Jack Kornfield writes in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, “Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.”


Sources

Alcyone. At the Feet of the Master. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1910.

Barker, A.T., and Vicente Hao Chin Jr., eds. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in Chronological Sequence. Quezon City, Philippines: Theosophical Publishing House, 1998.

Besant, Annie. Theosophical Lectures. Chicago: Rajput Press, 1907.

Blavatsky, H.P. “Reincarnation and Karma.” Blavatsky Study Center (website): http://www.blavatskyarchives.com/blavatskykarmareincarnation.htm; accessed Feb. 15, 2019.

Kornfield, Jack. Buddha’s Little Instruction Book. New York: Bantam, 1994.

Sri Ram, N. Human Regeneration. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1985.


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