Barbara Lazear Ascher’s husband gave her the news in the most straightforward way. “Looks like pancreatic cancer,” he told her matter-of-factly after the test results came back.
She and their friends gave him a wonderful death. They had theme parties with matching drinks. “Dying was intimate, and I drew close,” Ascher writes in her moving memoir, “Ghosting,” “We were single-minded, welded together in the process of this long leave-taking.”
This is how David Brooks starts a recent piece in The New York Times, “Some People Turn Suffering Into Wisdom.” I might as well borrow from one of the best. Brooks often writes about living life — its goodness and the difficulties. In this one, he covers the landscape of grief and trauma and moving on.
This kind of disorientation is brutal … and normal. Grief and suffering often shatter our assumptions about who we are and how life works. The social psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman notes that many people assume that the world is benevolent, that life is controllable, and that we are basically good people who deserve good things. Suffering and loss can blast that to smithereens.
My few (and relatively small) hard knocks in life taught me years ago about the lesson of impermanence. That is — all things change. The grief that follows loss bumps up to this piece of wisdom. This is normal. I have written before about my habit of journaling. I didn’t say then that I tend to journal more and with more passion when things are not going so well in my life. Brooks introduced an exercise to use journaling to tell our stories differently.
Gradually the process of re-storying begins. This is taking a now fragmented life and slowly cohering it into a new narrative. The social psychologist James Pennebaker has people do free expressive writing, sometimes for just 20 minutes a day for four days. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar, he advises; just let it flow — for yourself. In the beginning, people who take part in expressive writing exercises sometimes have different voices and handwriting styles. Their stories are raw and disjointed. But their narratives grow more coherent and self-aware as the days go by. They try on different perspectives. Some studies show that people who go through this process emerge with lower blood pressure and healthier immune systems.
I never took my blood pressure and can’t quantify how much, if at all, journaling helped me. I would have to go back through the losses in my life and do it over WITHOUT journaling — no, thank you. But I do agree with Brooks. Some people take grief and loss and make a new life.
Gradually, for some people, a new core narrative emerges answering the question, “What am I to do with this unexpected life?” It’s not that the facts are different, but a person can step back and see them differently. New frameworks are imposed, which reorganize the relationship between the events of a life. Spatial metaphors are helpful here: I was in a dark wood. This train is not turning around. I’m climbing a second mountain.
David Brooks’ most recent book is The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.
Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.