Detail of “Into 85 Percent Dark Chocolate” by the author.

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About Not Healing

In my early twenties, having survived an eventful childhood and adolescence, as I suppose most of us had, but with a unique flavor of being born in an Israeli Kibbutz to my particular family, I wrote a poem called “Resilience,” which was later translated into English.


Not much that could dim me now

Rooted in loneliness that was sowed in freedom
And no one could shake away
What is left

Days will pass and grow anew, like in any given time
After the rains and witching nights
Perhaps remains a subtle residue, some thin moisture
Captured in frosted fingertips

It takes time to thaw, I already know, all the time needed
To spring whole rivers in their season
But then must come a belated blossom
For still alive are the things inside:
I hear echoes rise and descend
Breathing from the brown bears’ slumber
From within the caves I retreated to
Some-here, beneath layers hardening and peeling
I for myself await

It was the bottom line of what I knew to be true of adversities in my life; that one struggles, at times so deeply that she believes she would shutter, that the sun will never light the world again, that the pain will never go away, but then—in some unimaginable way—it does. And when it does, one looks back at the scars internally and the ruins around and, with the insistence of living, dusts herself off and makes a few hesitant attempts to walk again, then to move away from pain, find her joy again, reground in being who she is.

Then life keeps up its surprises and its consistencies—different adversities and heartaches, new struggles that overwhelm you. Then you somehow come up for air again, are thrust into an ocean of new dangers, and then come somehow drifting, half conscious, to a soft-sanded shore. We all know this, I suppose.

And what is it then, about healing, or—what feels like the irony and magic that is healing—that I want to share here?

As a researcher of resilience after natural disasters, nationally1 and internationally,2 I have been inspired by the unique shared abilities we humans possess, making it possible for each of us in our own way, and all of us collectively, to lift our gaze and look for sun and calm despite what we know, what we’ve witnessed.

I have also been excited about the possibility of better understanding this process as nonlinear and less directional through concepts such as “posttraumatic growth” (PTG). PTG, as I understand it, speaks to the reality that in recovering, even in healing, we do not undo the wounds, which at times stay open and get complicated, while we transform, grow, and change.3

As a therapist, and one who is profoundly intrigued by our creative and expressive senses of knowing, I am reminded every day that beauty is a felt resonance, a profound knowing experienced when we are able to face our own truths—as deeply painful and raw as those can be—and nevertheless find solace and flow looking through and into our deepest wounds.

But this piece was not meant to be another monologue of affirmations. Rather, I was going to write about my own struggles holding on to this knowing of how life pushes past devastations.

In a way, it is all quite simple.

We know that we are not immortal, that there is an end to all that we love and to our own knowing. We get into our cars with a subconscious awareness that we could hit someone, that our car could be damaged, that someone we hit would be injured, that we too could die. We get into the car anyway.

We witness school years end and experience lost friendships and teachers and places where we felt safe, often to never quite be replaced. We make new friends anyway and try to find safety in strange new places.

We live through family dynamics that could, and likely have, made most family members insane. We hold on to what we can of our sanity and try to manage our own insanity with compassion and understanding (when possible). We know this is a difficult world, that humans have managed to wear down most resources and processes, that we have been at least as evil and mean as we have been kind to one another, and that the future looks grim. And yet most of us make decisions to bring children into it. We hope somehow it’ll work out, and that the families we have are less insane (they are probably just differently insane). We hope we will remember to drive safely and that somehow world problems will dissolve.

We make no sense, but with more sense, we would not live past the knowing.

The truth for most of us is that we make little sense pushing past moments we completely could not have recovered from, except we did.

Six years ago, almost to the day, my twin girls were born. A month later their dad, my love, passed away. We were not prepared and did not see it coming; although he had survived cancer before, he was diagnosed with a recurrence.

We caught it early this time we thought. His doctors thought he was young and generally healthy. He had reasons to live and resources—internal and external—to survive. There was no good reason for him to get this form of rare cancer to begin with, and in some existential way we kind of collectively refused to believe it. We couldn’t see he was getting thinner, that the physical limitations were mounting during the last few months. I was pregnant, we were going to be parents, so we had to believe it would somehow be okay. It was getting hard, so hard, between his suffering and the necessity of caring for two new lives. The gaps between what we worked toward and what was possible were growing deeper and broader every day.

And then he boarded a plane to continue an experimental treatment in Germany, in the company of his parents, cleared by our local doctors to go. There was an intuitive pit in my stomach as he left the door, but I shrugged it off and went to nurse my girls and “to do what I could do.”

He collapsed midair and died after an emergency landing in Canada. He died, the only man I knew who knew how to love another as clear and as pure as water flowing down. He died, despite and because of so many things; there was no sense to it.

So here we were, trying to make sense of how his passing ended his misery, and how our girls had so much attention and love and did not have to grow up facing illness and pain each day. And still there was no sense to be made. In my heart of hearts, everything I had held on to and hoped for and desperately wanted to focus on was covered with shuttered knowing. Yet, somehow, life goes on and we carry our dead inside us when we walk to the grocery store and talk to a teller at the bank, and year after year passes. Then it occurred to me: the resilience was not a marveled ability, a human jam, but our necessity. We were designed to dust ourselves off, with one hand if the other was hurt. We were designed to look up again, to look around, to reach for others. Resilience was our remedy, but it was also our curse, pushing us back into a life that we would lose, into relationships in which we get hurt and hurt others, our rock rolled up a Greek mountain, on its way down, on our way down.

When pushing that rock up, one has to hold on to something and has to let go of something—holding on to, at the very least, a belief that higher is better, that there is meaning in striving; maybe even that there is a higher purpose, for some god—for which this journey is gifted. When focusing our gaze up we intentionally stop ourselves from thinking and from sinking; we focus our energy out and up, and as the rock rolls we find ourselves one step higher, with a powerful need to keep going. Except when, despite ourselves, we don’t. I flashback to the beginning of my pregnancy, when we only had nine months together, but we did not know it—he seemed healthy and happy and we had a full future unrolling in front of us. We could never have had that happy time if we knew everything would dissolve. If we rolled that carpet even farther, had we known, we would likely not have chosen to have children. The best gift of my life, I realize, was my ignorant bliss then and the incredible outcome of all I could not control and never would have wished for under the circumstances—yet remains our one palpable legacy, our daughters.

This is the irony of life, I suppose, with its gifts and curses switching right before your eyes. . . .

But then remains the question of recovery. It seems to me we cannot, or do not really recover from as much as we think we do. We push forward, we forget (or pretend to), we ignore the nagging reminders, we divert our attention where we must. Yet, we are also a learning species; after you’ve lost a game, you remember the biting disappointment in your cells. Your next victory might be sweeter, you might be more accepting of your next loss, even, but you never play the game without a sinking sense of possible doom at its end.

When you witness the death of someone you love, or have witnessed yourself drop from the height of the tallest building imagined, but you are still alive—you never walk a day without the sense of possible doom, and then the blessed internal resistance to that impending doom. So that sense of dread and that intentional breath walk with you “like a shadow or a friend” (as Naomi Shihab Nye beautifully articulated in her poem “Kindness”).4

You learn to live anew, after your breath has stopped, unsure of much, even the little you had been sure of. You somehow house death, and fear of death, where once you had a helpful eye-covered perspective. I remember finding solace in resonance—echoes of your internal truth strangely hanging on someone else’s clothesline—a Facebook group for “young hot widows,”5 or the familiar sinking feeling of death hovering when reading Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air with a resistant and desperate search for a happy ending.6

Where is this piece going?

Well, of course, to the same zero-sum-game, to the same drain. The bottom line is that perhaps the silver lining is the resonance you get along the way, recognizing others who carry their dead inside and are actively living. Perhaps there is no silver lining, just the truth that when you look up from where you sit in devastation, and the sun rises again, and your child has a nightmare about you dying to which you hear yourself echo the only truth you can explain to her—that you will be there for her as long as you can, that it’ll be okay, that now is the time to sleep and rest so tomorrow she can play. You know that in some broken way she too will live a journey that is precious and bound by time, you know that she will learn more about loss and death, the distraction of the world, and the impossibility of full recovery. But you also trust that she will dust herself off and take another breath, love deeply, and then look up and search for a meaning that she can hold on to for a while, then transform it in an unknowable way or time.

Maybe the take away is not to expect that you can heal or fault yourself when you can’t, but to hold on to the possibility that it might happen as you go about your days, in the strange way that your voyage makes perfect sense in retrospect, but never seemed clear when you were trying to get to where you now stand.


Photo by Ayal