At a recent conference a woman whose husband had been dead a few months said, “I can’t stand the numbness, the pain is horrible, but I am so tired of just feeling numb. How can I hurt like I do and be numb at the same time?”
There is a form of depression that does not exemplify itself just by feeling blue or sad, but also by no feelings at all. We feel detached like we are outside of our own bodies watching ourselves go through the motions of life, but somehow not emotionally involved. We will refer back to this phenomenon again and again because it affects almost every part of us as we walk the grief journey.
At a conference a counselor and I had a very good talk about this type of depression. She wanted to know how it compared with clinical depression and we both agreed it was a different type of thing altogether. Clinical depression is far more serious and demands much more in the healing process. This is more like the mind and emotions turn off for a time in a natural process of damage control. The mind will protect itself from going off the deep end, so it seems to just shut itself off.
As I was leaving for a conference some years ago, my office manager told me a couple would be driving to the city were I was to speak to go to dinner with me and talk. Their fourteen-year-old son had accidentally hanged himself and naturally they were having a tough time. The wife had called and kept saying she didn’t want to go on. That was a red flag to my office manager and she suggested they come for a talk.
The couple arrived early enough for us to begin talking before dinner and immediately the wife started saying she didn’t want to go on. My natural response was to ask if she was saying she wanted to take her own life. Her response was immediate and firm, “No I would never do that to my family, but I don’t understand why I don’t want to go on.” After dinner the husband started telling his wife all the reasons she had for going on and she almost screamed back at him, “I know all of that, and I am going to go on, but I need to find some way to want to.”
It became clear that she wanted to feel something she could not feel. She wanted to want to, and her “want to” was broken. I explained this kind of depression that is very prevalent in grief and then told her three things.
I told her the feelings will return. It will be slow and will take time, but gradually the numbness wears away and feelings come back. At some point it will be alright to feel again. At some point it will be alright to laugh again. At some point it will be alright to feel love again and let it show.
I told her the feelings would return much faster if she could stop fighting herself because they were not there. Beating up on ourselves over how we feel is a waste of precious energy needed for healing. Feel what you feel and don’t fight it, is probably the best advice I have ever discovered in helping grieving people.
Then I told her, unfortunately, until the feelings return, it is a process of putting one foot in front of the other and acting without the feelings that once prompted the action. There was a time when she felt the love she was sharing as she cooked meals, cleaned the house, or worked at a job to support a family. Now it is all just a chore and it will be for a time, but walking on one step at a time is also part of the healing.
Can we be numb and hurt at the same time? Certainly and it adds to the pain. Thank goodness there will come a time when we will feel like doing what we now just have to do.
Copyright Doug Manning of In-Sight Books, Inc. Doug’s books, CDs and DVDs are available at www.insightbooks.com. Post originally published on Doug’s Blog at The Care Community www.thecarecommunity.com.
Updated: July 27, 2015