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August 6, 2022

The Autopsy examines the transformative potential of self-reflection.

Autopsy. It’s not a pleasant word. It’s not cute. It’s not fun. It’s grim.

It’s grisly.

But when there’s a dead body, it needs to be dealt with. Otherwise, the rotting corpse will bring about other unwelcomed issues. Flies laying eggs. Maggots. A putrid room condition in which the corpse is stinking up the joint. Eventually, the dead body’s gaseous state, which, left unattended, will build up, until it explodes all over the walls and ceiling.

And those are fun renovations to deal with, aren’t they?

An autopsy, therefore, is necessary in determining what went wrong, sometimes because of criminal activity. But “the dead man’s tale,” in one way or another, needs to be told. What happened? How did the corpse arrive at this state?

Hindsight is twenty-twenty. It often occurs when we have some space, time, and reflection to process what just happened.

If you and I live long enough on this blue marble, we’ll eventually litter our lives with some metaphorical corpses of our own (hopefully, there are no felonies, but life happens).

These corpses, these dead things can be such things as relationships, experiences of poor judgment, sacrificing/compromising our ethics and morality, and self-sabotage. Whatever these things may be, and how varied they may be, they have some common denominators, qualifying them for a good ole’ fashioned autopsy.

Autopsy: It’s pronounced dead.

It’s the first component for an autopsy: it needs to be completely and fully dead. This speaks to the concept of acceptance. Calling a dead thing a dead thing, not holding out unrealistic hope for resurrection.

It’s stark; it’s bleak. There’s no hope.

Because of that assessment, this simple realization is anything but easy to reach. We want hope; we want to hang onto to it.

We want to believe in second chances, in the benefit of the doubt, in “love conquers all,” in “happily ever after.”

That will keep us avoiding the autopsy for a long period of time.

I used to perform this monologue from Christopher Durang’s “’Denity Crisis” in my acting class years ago. It evokes and answers to the brutal approach that we, perhaps, need to take to “toxic hope.”

“…You remember how in the second act Tinkerbell drinks some poison that Peter’s about to drink, in order to save him? And then Peter turns to the audience, and he says that Tinkerbell’s going to die because not enough people believe in fairies, but that if everybody in the audience claps real hard to show that they do believe in fairies, then maybe Tinkerbell won’t die…. and so then all the children started to clap…. we clapped very hard and very long…. my palms hurt and even started to bleed I clapped so hard…. then suddenly the actress playing Peter Pan turned to the audience and she said, ‘that wasn’t enough. You didn’t clap hard enough. Tinkerbell’s dead.’  Uh..well, and..and then everyone started to cry. The actress stalked offstage and refused to continue with the play, and they finally had to bring down the curtain. No one could see anything through all the tears, and the ushers had to come help the children up the aisles and out into the street. I don’t think I was ever the same after that.”

Brutal autopsy. Radical acceptance. It’s dead.

Tinkerbell’s dead.

Now what?

Now the autopsy can begin.

Autopsy: It’s laid out on a slab.

Now that everyone has determined that the corpse is, indeed, dead, we need to lay it out as such. We need a slab. We need a place to examine the dead thing.

For those of us reflecting on a certain past issue, be it person or situation, the slab can be a therapist’s office. It usually speaks to the concept of a “safe space,” or a haven.

It’s the setting and the mechanism in which we do our work. We perform the autopsy.

Just like it would be absurd, unrealistic, or dysfunctional to expect an autopsy of a dead body being performed by a coroner in the middle of a highway during rush hour traffic, it is equally insane to expect thorough dissection and analysis of our dead, but painful, things within our own lives.

We need time, space, calm, quiet, information, language, and the permission to employ all of these things as we go about our deeply personal autopsies.

We need to be safe to do so.

And if we’re not?

Recognizing that we are important and valuable enough to have safety be preeminent. This is needed in circumstances in which we are literally not safe: physically, financially, emotionally. It is, of course, not ideal, having this setup in our lives. Determining the power of recognition of this fact, therefore, can be therapeutic, despite the “facts.”

Perhaps, now is not the time. Perhaps, it’s unsafe to tackle the deep work of the autopsy. Perhaps, we are not ready to engage in this. Perhaps, wisdom, time, distance, in addition to other resources, need to enter in. and now is not the time of that entrance.

Instead of beating ourselves up about this, we can make the paradigm shift about these difficult realities, impacting our lives, we can look at our circumstances as the imperfect slab, or a kind of “pre-slab.” This can allow for hope, not despair.

The slab is a real thing, waiting for us, regardless of what our lives look like now.

We may not be “there” yet, but we can do something to prepare to get there.

What is that?

Autopsy:  It’s inspected thoroughly.

So, we now know it’s dead. We have our slab.  Therefore, we are ready for the examination. We need to poke around and see what went wrong. What happened?

The inspection process of an autopsy is gruesome. The top of the skull can be removed to check the brain tissue for blows to the head, or for signs of disease, like cancer or dementia. The sternum and the ribcage are opened, revealing the internal organs. Those organs are removed, weighed, and opened as well, to reveal their contents. What did the person have to eat as their last meal? What tumors, calcifications, or abnormalities are present? Bruising, lacerations, and abrasions on the body are noted as well. How did they get there? And then, there’s a combing for additional fibers or objects that would not normally exist on a human body. What’s their story?

Likewise, our life circumstances can require a similar introspection. Soured relationships, missed opportunities, and personal/dysfunctional behaviors on our part can be the internal organs giving evidence of what went wrong. Were we abused? Do we struggle with anger, boundary, or trust issues? Are we immature? Are we codependent? What’s our self-esteem portrait?

Notice how the common denominator of these questions and these examinations is us. No, not everything is our fault. If we were abused, it’s the abuser who was wrong, not us.

But we are central to what happens to and in us. We respond, react, and behave according to what has happened to us. We can be as enlightened, mature, “well-adjusted,” and wise as we want to be. Still, we are affected. We may rise above circumstances, but we are affected.

Autopsies provide us with the opportunity to become better and healthier. It’s not about focusing on the negative for the sole purpose of beating ourselves up, telling ourselves we’re stupid and we deserve what happened to us.

No. Instead, if we can assess the patterns that have been at play, be they active or passive patterns, we can course correct. Again, therapy can be a vital part of that healthier course correction. Confronting and changing, over time, those things which do not serve us can feel like the equivalent of a full body cavity autopsy of a dead, cold, and blue-tinted corpse. We may, at first glance, only see death and putrid conditions.

But we need to see those things. We need to see the ugly. Then we can change it.

The autopsy helps us to do that.

Autopsy: It’s washed.

Once an autopsy is performed, with the necessary evidence scraped and collected, the dead body needs to be washed. The corpse may need to be presented to the grieving family. The corpse needs to be presentable enough to enable his/her loved ones to make the necessary burial, funeral, or memorial arrangements. This cleansing is needed for a type of closure in the death and grieving process.

It’s a similar thing for us, especially as we try to come to terms with the loss, the trauma, and the disturbing upset of life-changing events in our lives.

Closure. It’s something that is not an easy thing to achieve for so many of us. It may not be possible at all. Loose ends and unanswered questions do not provide us, many times, with the peaceful resolutions we are yearning for.

Much of the time, we feel dirty and tired. After all, we’ve faced and wrestled with the ugliness of our painful issues. That leaves its mark. We long to feel freed and refreshed. Some of us desire cleansing and purification, as shame has stuck to us in so many a painful circumstance.

Many therapeutic approached, weekend retreats, and self-improvement workshops introduce rituals that can be a form of baptism or rebirth. Some of my inner child therapy involved a ritualistic bath with rose water. Supposedly, the rose scent has a calming and cleansing impact on the tender inner child.

Whatever the case may be, water and cleansing are forces that cannot be underestimated for their healing potential. How many of us feel better after a shower? This basic hygiene practice is part of many a self-care checklist.

Cleansing, purification, hygiene, self-care: whatever we call it, we seek its regenerating effects and symbolism of the fresh start. It can be the demarcation we feel we need in order to move forward with our lives.

This part of the autopsy process reminds us that cleansing, new life, and positive change can come, even from death and the gruesome things that are associated with that death.

We deserve to be clean, to be purified. We deserve the new beginning.

Autopsy: It’s placed in an organized, proper place.

Hey, here’s a fun piece of information you probably haven’t come across in your life.

You know what those filing cabinets, within the morgues are called? Mortuary Cabinet Lockers.

Why am I mentioning this?

Because, as I’ve been delving into this autopsy topic, of course, a major element of this procedure is dealing with the dead bodies in an orderly, safe, healthy, and hygienic way. We’ve watched many crime shows and movies in which a dead body is placed in the metal filing cabinet, the official mortuary cabinet locker.

Autopsies require that along with the assessment, the dead decree, the mess, the gruesomeness, the cleansing, and the detail- focused process of it all, there also needs to be a level of organization and order.

Something needs to be done with the corpse. It needs to be “filed away,” via the mortuary cabinet locker.

When you and I deal with the painful issue or obstacle that has been contaminating our lives, there will come a time in which we have a need to place its reality and any accompanying insights and healings, in a certain way. Placement, integration, and organization of this dead body needs to be dealt with in a proper, appropriate, and functional way.

It can become a part of our lives, but with the mandate that it no longer destabilize and harm our lives.

That takes the personal, unique choice, for each of us as individuals. What does reconciliation and “filing away” look like? It should be more than just something we can live with, but also something that heals, restores, gives us peace, and a sense of life affirmation.

What will we put away forever in the vault?

What remains an active, daily part of our lives?

What is catalogued with special toe tags that designate something, in particular, that we continue to work on?

These are all the questions for us to probe, hopefully with professional therapy, and arrive at empowering answers, over time. These answers cannot be rushed or forced. They must unfold. Unfolding is a part of the filing process.

Autopsy: The Point:

Autopsies make decrees. They can answer questions. They can sometimes provide a sense of, if not closure or peace, then, at least, a kind of certainty. The decree of death, loss, and finality. The decree of things gone wrong. The decree of some measure of “the point.”

The autopsy is not a perfect, fairytale ending, but it can be an antidote to the regrets and the “Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda” mentality. It can, through its alchemy, create an opportunity for better versions of ourselves. It’s the work, possessing dignity and healing. The work of addressing the death, and the hopeful potential that loss can bring life.  If we can consider facing it.

If we can consider the autopsy.

Copyright © 2022 by Sheryle Cruse


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