If pain is inevitable, how can suffering be optional?
By Jill Smolowe
She thought this chapter of her past was closed. So, when an ancient, painful relationship recently roared back into my friend’s life, stirring up old and ugly feelings, she began to worry she was coming unglued.
“I swore I’d never be here again,” she told me. “I know I should be able to handle this better.” In search of solace, she reached out to several friends. Their loving advice was stern: Don’t let this guy get into your head. Put him behind. Move on.
My own counsel was different. “Stop fighting your pain and acknowledge it,” I said. “You’ve earned this pain. Give it its due.”
The suggestion comes not only from my respective trainings as a life coach and a crisis counselor, both of which emphasize the importance of “validating” people’s feelings. More deeply, it draws on my own experience with grief after losing four loved one in rapid succession. While grappling with that pile-on of losses, I discovered that something a therapist had told me years earlier was true: my pain would be more tolerable if I could “just sit with it.”
A Four-Word Prescription for Depression
When I first heard that four-word prescription, I was in my late thirties and battling a crushing depression. At the time, a 24/7 loop of misery was running through my head that disrupted my sleep, appetite and ability to focus on anything but my pain. As I twisted myself into ever-deepening knots of despair, an inner voice chided, “You should be able to handle this better.”
During the two years that Joe had bounced in and out of hospitals, we had learned something useful: Stay in the present. Don’t get ahead of yourself.
That self-judgment only made things worse. Now, I was not just hurting — I was ramping up my distress by heaping on self-blame for not dealing with my anguish more maturely, more calmly, more effectively.
Each time my therapist would instruct, “Just sit with it,” I would plead, “How?” Her Rx made no sense to me. Why would anyone want to soak in pain rather than try to escape it?
Fast-forward 15 years to June 2009. After a battle with leukemia, my husband of 24 years, the love of my life for 28, had just died. The word “devastated” doesn’t begin to cover what I was feeling. But during the two years that Joe had bounced in and out of hospitals, he and I had learned something useful: Stay in the present. Don’t get ahead of yourself. One minute at a time. One hour. One day.
To preserve my sanity, I worked hard applying that lesson to my newly widowed existence. I told myself that our 15-year-old daughter had just lost her father; she didn’t need to lose her mother, too. I suspect the realization that my child’s well-being would be further eroded if I plunged into depression buttressed my resolve.
When Pain Is Necessary
What I know for certain is this: For the first time in my life, I didn’t try to do an end-run around my pain. Instead, I steered right into it. All of it. My loss of Joe. My loss of Joe and me. My daughter’s loss of her father. Our loss of the three of us. My loss of the life that I treasured, loved and had assumed would inform my days for several decades to come.
Unlike most of the anguish that had blown through my life, bringing with it a tailwind of complicating questions (Had I brought this on myself? Shouldn’t I be handling it better? Was I overreacting?), this sorrow required no self-justification, explanation or apology. To me, the pain seemed not only appropriate and understandable; it seemed necessary.
Soon, through no conscious effort, my most intense moments of grief settled into a pattern. Once a day, usually around dusk — the time of day when Joe and I used to reconnect after our respective workdays — I would feel a huge wave of sorrow rising up in me.
If other people were around, I pushed it aside, telling myself, “Not now.” I had no desire to share these overpowering waves of grief. This was for and about Joe; for and about me; for and about us. Where the pain came from and what the feelings of loss involved were too personal, too special, too impossible to explain.
But if I was alone, I went into my bedroom, settled on the rug — and surrendered. Without resistance, I let my grief take full hold, tossing me where it might. I sobbed, I keened, I pounded the floor with my fists. I choked on the mucus clogging my nose and throat, I emptied boxes of Kleenex, I whispered over and over, “Where are you, Joe? Where are you?”
Suffering Is Optional
Though I never sought to disrupt or shorten these daily crying jags, they rarely lasted long. After about 20 minutes, I would simply stop, resurface and resume my day. By month four, I trusted that I could tolerate these soul-wrenching moments. “I disappear through a hole at the center of the earth,” I wrote in my journal. “As much as those moments hurt, I know I will push back up and be okay.”
During those months, and again the following year after my sister and mother died within three weeks of each other, I heard a lot of, “I don’t know how you’re able to handle all of this.” At the time, I didn’t know either.
I think I do now.
An adage, popular in Buddhist circles, states, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” When I first encountered those words four years after Joe’s death, I sensed there was wisdom to be mined, but couldn’t get a handle on it. Then, I happened on Byron Katie’s book Loving What Is. We suffer, she wrote, when we “have a thought that argues with reality.”
With that, the meaning clarified for me, not only cerebrally, but at a gut level. I’d been able to tolerate the hollowing grief of new loss because I didn’t argue with the reality that I was confronting. I didn’t tell myself that Joe, whose parents lived well into their 90s, shouldn’t have gotten sick. (Reality: he did.) I didn’t tell myself that a 66-year-old man who’d been religious about exercise and a healthy diet shouldn’t have died. (Reality: he did.) I didn’t tell myself that our teenage daughter shouldn’t have lost her loving father. (Reality: she did.) I didn’t tell myself that a 53-year-old woman shouldn’t be widowed. (Reality: I was.)
Instead, I just sat with it. All of it.
And that, I believe, helped me tolerate my agony. To live with it one minute, one hour, one day at a time — until, gradually, it shifted from the defining essence of my days to the quieter sorrow that I carry to this day and imagine I will carry to my grave.
To my friend who is in so much pain … to any of you who currently feel like you may never see sunlight again … I offer the gift I gave myself: Allow yourself the kindness of giving your pain its due. Don’t try to argue it away. Acknowledge it. Accept it. Just sit with it.