Thinking Out Loud: The hardest word

John T. Catrett III
ONHL Hospice Chaplain

It's not difficult to identify people whose life has been touched by profound loss or personal tragedy. All you have to do is listen. Their responses become flat and curt: ‘Fine,’ ‘good as can be expected,' ‘Okay,' or ‘I'm alright.' These short replies replace joyful exuberances, laughter, the words 'really great', and especially 'happy.' Like a scar from a deep wound, there will always be lasting evidence something was altered. Physical evidence is in the eyes where a smile never reaches and in the deafening silence where laughter is appropriate. Emotions are anesthetized – not from a drug, but rather the growing disconnection from where pain lies dormant. Happiness is also there, but it is buried deep within that disconnection. For a time, “I’m happy” would be the hardest words to say.

How long does this retreat last? It lasts as long as there is a fear of touching the pain again or there is the fear of letting go of the pain lest it means one doesn't care anymore. Neither is tolerable, thus forcing the careful concealment of any deep emotions. It is wrong to assume that those who are so wounded have a desire to escape. They don’t and haven’t. One emerges from this only when there is some reason to revisit their pain with the expectation of a different result or with the determination to see it through. What can provide either of these?

1) Understanding – acceptance of what occurred and how. Coming to terms with those facts, and if not accepting, then allowing that there was nothing more that could have been done.

2) Closure – typically from the discovery of evidence and a final assessment of guilt and sentencing when a criminal act has occurred.

3) Successful fact-finding missions – one learns about an illness or genetic issue that can release the survivors from any sense of guilt or self-recriminations.

4) Recognizing that anger is fear – becoming cognizant that there may be the fear that you are somehow to blame for the final outcome for someone's death. That can feel so heavy!

5) Identifying when loss of a relationship becomes a personal tragedy – this triggers an in-depth examination of life’s clues. Ones we missed along the way to what became a completely broken road helps us to understand why it was a surprise. In almost every instance, there were warnings and caution signs – maybe even stop signs that we ignored in order to be loved or appreciated by someone important to us, whether or not it was “right” or “wrong.”

Rekindling human emotions does not come from outside. It is a healing process that slowly warms the wounded heart. It emerges as an ember, surprising the wounded when it surfaces. It doesn’t take much to catch life again. The smell of food on the grill, feeling a cool breeze, noticing aromas in the air after a spring shower: these are the simple things that spring from nature to stir our earliest memories and begin the process of reawakening. We start to touch the outside world again with simple things we know we can trust. Soon comes the unusual sound of one’s own unexpected laughter. Then hearing yourself laugh makes you laugh all the more!

Outside influences abound as others attempt to help you 'get over' a profound loss. Yet, it is the inner healing that will bring you to a place where you can accept, even though you may never 'get over' your loss. You beginning to know you can get through it and do more than survive. You can laugh again. And when it is appropriate you will once again say the hardest word, happy.

John T. Catrett III is chaplain for ONHL Hospice. He can be reached at (918) 352-3080 or