Bearing Witness to Catharsis


ca·thar·sis  (k-thärss)

n. pl. ca·thar·ses (-sz)
1. A purifying or figurative cleansing of the emotions, especially pity and fear, described by Aristotle as an effect of tragic drama on its audience.
2. A release of emotional tension, as after an overwhelming experience, that restores or refreshes the spirit.

I recently had the unique privilege of bearing witness to a friend’s spontaneous release of extreme fear and sadness, bottled up for several years (let’s call this friend, X) after a suicide of a close family member. It happened so innocently during a meal, when the subject came up and someone at the table said to X, “I think you are right all along. You need to acknowledge that there’s evil in this world, and that it was present then, and there’s no way your sister could have fought it”.

Witnessing catharsis as it unravels right before one’s eyes is to me, an astounding human experience. One moment, it was a casual conversation during a meal amongst friends, and the next moment, a bowed head started to shake from side to side, audible sobs, then a scream…”Why?”

When it unfolded without warning, all senses were on high alert – all at once, you feel like you may be in a movie scene – and empathy, once just a well taught & discussed concept in psych class, bursts forth from the deep recesses of my being, bypassing cognition and intellect…mirror emotions of deep deep sadness were hard to hold back. So were the tears which rolled off my cheeks. 

When we witness someone with the somatic presentations of being in trauma, releasing extreme fear and the outpouring of guilt, sadness and disbelief, the mind may not fathom what’s going on then but the heart cannot help but be open and says, “Just be. Reach out. Feel.”

X was trembling, her legs were shaking, her body was rocking, her hands were cold, her face was nearly unrecognisable…stricken with fear. We just held and hugged her, and felt the years of tightly-coiled emotions seeping out from the cells of her body and the depths of her soul. A soul crying desperately to be forgiven and released, as it realises right then, that there really was nothing she could do when someone chooses to end her life.

Why why why…did it have to happen? If only I was there for her…Why didn’t I act on what I suspected? Why must evil exist? She must have been cursed, why did I not protect her? Was her life so sad that she could not live on anymore? Why why why?



I was deeply humbled by what X went through that day…and in awe of her courage. We accompanied her to the exact spot where her sister would have jumped off, the site where her body was found, and then visited her grave for closure. Closure? I think that was the start for X in coming to terms with her loss and releasing herself from the guilt and pain. 

Years ago, during a time of personal crisis coming to terms with what was happening around me, my therapist had this to say when I was stuck at the gates of WHY:  “You may not ever find an answer to the WHY’s, no matter how hard you seek…you will need to accept that you may never know and yet, be able to move on.” 

I hope X can do the same and tread the rest of her days having forgiven herself, and forgiven her sister.

Sally May Tan




One response »

  1. Pingback: Bearing Witness to Catharsis | Wellness...On My Mind.

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