Let it Go
Suffering a traumatic loss can be devastating. But learning to move on can have surprising benefits.
When Haregewoin Teferra lost her husband to a heart attack she was sick with grief. The pair had been unusually close and for a while Teferra felt she would be unable to go on. Eventually she began to recover, taking comfort in her 23-hear-old daughter. But Teferra was to suffer a second tragedy. Not long after her husband’s death her daughter fell ill with a mystery illness. When she died, Teferra gave up completely. She had hit rock bottom.
Still, when a local church member asked her to care for an orphaned teenage girl, she agreed to do so. Within weeks the church contacted her about caring for a teenage boy and then, two six-year old girls. During the coming years, Teferra became the surrogate mother to hundreds of needy kids. Caring for them rekindled something deep inside her, and while she continued to grieve for her husband and daughter, she also began to think about her future – and she felt good about it.
“When her daughter died, Haregewoin dropped into utter despair,” says Melissa Fay Greene, author of There Is No Me without You (Allen & Unwin), a book about Teferra and the kids she looks after. “For a year and a half, dressed in black, she spent all day, every day, at the cemetery, seated beside her daughter’s grave. But from the moment she opened her door to the children, her life had meaning again.”
Somehow Teferra had let go and moved on.
Why Forgiveness Works
So why was that so important? Well, for one thing it meant that she regained some pleasure in her life. It also meant that her physical and emotional health got a major boost. Sydney-based psychotherapist Susannah Paterson says: “There’s plenty of solid research that shows that if you continually focus on negative events you raise stress levels within the body.” In fact, some psychologists believe that in terms of our health, letting go could be every bit as important as buckling our seatbelts or giving up smoking.
For example, Edward Hallowell, psychologist and author of Dare to Forgive (Harper Collins), believes that forgiveness decreased your blood pressure and your resting heart rate. He also believes that it boosts your immune system, lessens your chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke and eases backaches, headaches and neck pain. It can even do wonders for your sex life, Hallowell says.
If that’s not enough to make you want to give it a try, then think about this – according to a Harvard Medical School study, those who can forgive and forget have stronger lungs than those who hold a grudge. Study author Dr Rosalind Wright says: “Constant bad feelings are like pollutants in your body, triggering inflammation just like cigarette smoke does. We all get made, but it’s the lingering negative emotions that are harmful.”
Clearly, holding on to bad feelings is not the way to go. That said, simply forgetting about what happened to you or pretending that it never occurred in the first place is not a good move either.
“You can’t change history,” Paterson says. “And there does come a point when you need to get on with your life, but I wouldn’t advocate pretending that a negative experience never happened. There’s a big difference between doing that and forgiving. You don’t want to bury your feelings. You want to feel them and, if appropriate, let them go.”
How To Do It Right
Paterson, who has been working in the field of psychotherapy for almost 20 years, has dozens of clients who are working at “letting go”. Some are moving on from devastating events such as the loss of a spouse or child, while others are dealing with crises ranging from ill health to divorce. Regardless of the problem, Paterson says forgiveness will most likely take time – and so it should. “In our Western, capitalist society there’s so much pressure to just move on and forget,” she explains. “Whether our bad experience is major or just something small, many of us are in an enormous hurry to let go. We want to get better and get back to normal, but grief is a process and it takes time to move through it.”
Teferra moved through her grief by focusing on the needs of others. It took many years, but eventually she was able to see that despite being alone, she had plenty to offer the world. And the world had plenty to offer her. She likely also came to realise that she was not the only person to have suffered greatly. And that is key. Why? Because, unfortunately suffering is part of life. That’s something we could all think about from time to time. If we did we might find we were better able to cope when tragedy struck.
In turn, we might also be better able to let go and move on. As we just discussed, that would do wonders for our health. It could also boost our egos as we could bask in the knowledge that we were doing the right thing. “When we can let go and do it with grace, it’s a real sign of emotional maturity,” Paterson says. And who wouldn’t want that?
Talk, Talk, And Talk Some More
If you’ve suffered a loss or trauma, consider chatting to a professional such as a counsellor or psychologist. If formal therapy is not your thing, then have a heart-to-heart with your doctor, a family member or trusted friend. A problem shared is a problem halved, as they say.
Melissa Fay Greene, author of There is No Me Without You (Allen & Unwin), is adamant that sharing your pain is the only way to go. “Three terrible components of grief and depression are guilt, shame and loneliness,” says Greene, who herself has suffered great loss. “Only another human being can reassure you that it wasn’t your fault; that others have been there and that you’re not along in the world.”
To find a psychologist near you call the Australian Psychological Society on 1800 333 497 or visit www.psychology.org.au and click on the “find a psychologist” link. To get in touch with a counsellor psychotherapist call the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia on (02) 9486 3077 or visit www.pacfa.org.au and click on the “find a therapist” link.
So, you can see why I said “it could have been written by me”! You will understand further why I say this by looking at my free eBook called “Addressing Trauma, Grief and Loss – a Personal Journey” which you can order at http://www.calm.com.au/shop.
All the best,
"Your gift from God is your potential – Your gift to God is to use it."
Your work has been so special to us and we use bits of your teachings all the time – Peaceful place, goal setting etc.
I for one really enjoy your Mind Matters News emails – they are a timely reminder of what CALM is about. Our Mum is still with us but of ill health and she enjoys your Emails and often mentions how wonderful the gift from CALM is to so many people. M.S. Vic.