Shooting the Second Arrow by Melanie Rolfe

Many years ago I had a miscarriage, and recently a doctor asked about my experience. Speaking about the baby I lost was emotional for me, more so than I had expected. What was even less expected was my doctor’s reply – Why does this still upset you?

Why does this still upset me?
Because it is still a child that isn’t here. Because it was the most devastating thing I’ve experienced. Because now I have a beautiful son I can hold in my arms and I know what I missed. Would you ask why a patient with a broken bone is in pain? I’m in pain because it’s painful. And I’m ok with that.

Often camouflaged as ‘moving on’, ‘dealing with it’, ‘getting over it’ – the idea is the same. After some arbitrary timeframe, a large part of society expects that you’ll be ‘fixed’. It’s a concept rooted in outdated psychological theory, but seems to remain in the mindset of many, including health professionals. Perhaps it made sense to my doctor, to treat this pain as she did the sore throat before me and the broken bone after – but we’re not healing bones. We’re healing hearts. A healed bone can look and function just as it used to, because for all intents and purposes it is as it was. A life touched by the death of someone we love will never again be as it would have been. The path that life was on is changed; that person is forever missing.

I once read a Buddhist metaphor about shooting the second arrow that goes roughly like this. We are all shot with arrows throughout life; things that are innately hard, like losing a job, losing a house, illness, disappointment, and yes, death. No one gets through life ‘unhit’, and unlike literal arrows, you can’t see how badly someone has been hurt.

But there are also the second arrows, and these are the avoidable ones. These are the thoughts of ‘I want this pain to be finished’, ‘I should be dealing with this better’, and the well-meaning but ill-informed comments such as ‘why does this still upset you?’ or ‘look on the bright side’. This second arrow is not the inevitable difficulties we all will face, this second arrow is the energy we invest and the anxiety we create by trying to be unbothered by things that are inherently bothersome. I have certainly been guilty of shooting the second arrow, but that day my doctor was the bowman.

Fifty years on from Freud’s theory of grief being a process of breaking an attachment, and modern psychology has finally caught up with ancient wisdom. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT is built on the notion that psychological distress is a normal part of the human experience. ‘Acceptance’ here isn’t a cloaked version of ‘bad stuff happens, you’ll have to get over it’, but a genuine willingness to experience distressing emotions, when they are felt in the process of a values-driven act. In the context of death, I think this translates to – we feel the pain because we acknowledge the joy. Grief is a necessary debt of love.

ACT also draws strongly on the ineptitude of language to capture experience, but the human inclination to treat our linguistic thoughts as fact. In this light, I wonder if we need a new narrative to describe the process of grief. If we are never to be fully healed, is healing the right term? There are people and events in life for which we will perpetually grieve, going through different intensities in our own time. Could society get used to the idea of a perpetual, non-linear, individual grief, as opposed to an end goal of recovery?

We will all encounter events in life which are simply unfixable.  This doesn’t mean that we are unfixable, or even unable to thrive, in fact there is often an unprecedented opportunity for growth that comes from such experiences. If you happen upon someone who has accepted the unfixable nature of a trauma, this is not a sign that they themselves need to be fixed. If you yourself have been through that hurt, I wish you three things;

I wish you the peace of accepting the pain,
I wish you the vision to recognise your potential, and
I wish you the wisdom and courage to see your own strength.

For more info on ACT, including an international list of practitioners and professional development, see https://contextualscience.org/act (not an affiliated site).

Post-script: This article is not intended to flatten all traumatic experiences to the same degree of difficulty, nor even compare them. My aim is to acknowledge that we all face our own difficulties, and that beating ourselves or each other up about acknowledging pain isn’t helping anybody. It is helpful to acknowledge that some things suck.

About the author

Melanie RolfeMelanie Rolfe is a mother, a wife, a dreamer, a dancer, and a doer. She has worked in the not-for-profit sector for the best part of a decade, supporting children, adolescents, and families who are living with a serious illness, life-limiting condition, or the loss of their loved one. Her experience is in psychosocial care and her passion is for empowering every member of the family to live the fullest life possible. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a graduate certificate in adolescent health and welfare specialising in oncology, and is currently studying her Masters in applied positive psychology. She advocates for families as their own experts, and hopes to be the vessel to share the wisdom of the families she has worked with.

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