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Emerging from the Abyss


Writing Your Way Through Loss, Fear, and Uncertainty:


In a very real sense, we are the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we create will impact the way we experience the world. As we continue to outgrow our old lives, often through loss and tragedy, we need larger, deeper, more compassionate stories to deal with new and unfamiliar contexts. This is just such a time in history.


Throughout the world, countless thousands are suffering devastating losses of loved ones, homes, and jobs, while still more are struggling with ongoing fear, uncertainty, and loss of meaning. Our new life stories may be darker since the world changed forever on September 11, 2001. We have also suffered enormous losses from natural disasters.


By including awareness of the more tragic aspects of life, however, our stories may be richer, fuller, more profound. After all, does not the stirring symphony include both the rumbling bass horns as well as the flutes? The tapestry that excites the eye is composed of both dark and bright threads to create its own unique pattern. By accepting and integrating all of our feelings–all of life with its glorious mountain peaks as well as its abysses–we become larger persons who are more capable of fully accepting ourselves and therefore eventually better able to help others.


The New Life Stories writing process offers a practical, concrete, and time-tested way to deal with the very real issues raised by hardships. Here are some suggestions to help you write your own way through loss, grief, and tragedy:


* When you can, begin to redefine the term “normal.” Instead of trying to “get back to normal” right away as we are exhorted to do, try exploring the ways in which the concept of normal has changed. You might also want to examine the ways in which you have changed. To attempt to go back to old ways that are no longer possible is to court disappointment and frustration. Let the “new normal” establish itself gradually, then accept the new standards as you can.


Writing prompt: How has the concept of “normal” changed for you?


* Be aware that even though you may attempt to get back into your old routine as quickly as possible, you might not be able to perform as well as before. You may have difficulties concentrating, you may be awkward or clumsy, or you may feel irritable and impatient. Give yourself plenty of time to readjust to the reconfigured world. Just because you function brilliantly one day is no guarantee you can maintain that high level day after day.


Writing prompt: In what ways are you giving yourself time to recover?


* Be gentle with yourself. Don’t expect to be handling things “better” or “faster” than you are. You are as you are, so allow yourself to feel the way you do. You’ll deal with things more effectively when you can. In the meantime, you need whatever you need to help you get through the rough spots, whether it’s more rest, more time, or other ways of “cutting yourself some slack.”


Writing prompt: What do you need in order to cope?


* For now, let go of the need to understand everything in your search for meaning. Let go of the need to find reasons or explanations of inner workings of some divine plan. This is not a time for premature answers, but a time to “sit with the questions,” both large and small. Record the questions as they present themselves now, and allow the answers to unfold if and when they will in their own sweet time. You may even want to give yourself permission to continue on indefinitely without solid or satisfying solutions. Allow the questions for now, and you may find that learning to tolerate ambiguity will make you a wiser, more thoughtful person. As the poet Rilke, wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart…”


Writing prompt: How do you “sit with” the questions or conflicting thoughts that present themselves to you?


* Do something well enough to dispel feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. It is important to have some sense of mastery and competence on a daily basis. Even a very small act can remind you that you have some control over yourself and your environment. Straightening a desktop, making a phone call, sweeping a floor, or scrubbing a counter top can be enormously comforting at the right time.


Writing prompt: What small actions could you take to help you feel calm and centered?


Which of these suggestions might work for you? You’ll need to find your own way. Once you redefine what is “normal” for now, try making a list of what would strengthen you. Then start with the one that works best for you to take a small step forward at your own pace.