In a former post linked here we discussed the concept of “Brain Blunders” and how they relate to our experience of grief and potential healing.  As a reminder, we called out the fact that in the absence of information that makes sense to us, our brain works hard to fill in gaps with false narratives so we feel less confused and/or worried.  One way this can play out is if we are missing someone we haven’t heard from, and don’t know why we haven’t heard from them, our brain makes up reasons for the radio silence, most of if not all of which are false.

Additionally, we looked at the importance of putting an end to making stuff up just because we don’t have all the facts.  Specifically, when we are grieving or supporting someone who is, we can alienate ourselves, and others, during a time when we need each other most if we allow stories to form in our heads about why we did or didn’t hear from someone.  As discussed, this leads to unnecessary suffering and can be a distraction from building a healing path.

Today, let’s expand that concept to chat about the differences between pain and suffering, and why our ability to dive into the first and let go of the second ultimately determines our experience of life after a loved one dies.

I love words and often quote the dictionary and another authoritative sources when writing.  But today I am resisting the urge to formally define the terms “pain” and “suffering” and instead, will rely on my own experience for purposes of this discussion.  See if any of this resonates and how, if at all, the distinction between the two experiences of grief and suffering can help us pave our way to a healing path.  (Notice, I didn’t say a “pain-free” path.)

Pain:  When I think about physical pain, I understand that our ability to feel pain and respond to it quickly is a built in survival mechanism that has allowed for the evolution of human beings into the most complex species on the Planet.  If I touch a hot burner, my hand retreats.  I don’t have to think much about it.  Since I have a body and a brain, I may feel pain when I am in danger.  And that is an indicator that everything is working as it should.

Suffering:  When I think about physical suffering it usually brings to mind a situation of chronic illness or something uncomfortable that I can’t seem to shake.  Think chronic pain and/or other physical symptoms that hang around.  The initial cause may be resolved, but the experience of its effects hang around long after the injury occurs.  And that can be an indicator that things are not working as they should.

In a sentence, I would summarize the distinction between pain and suffering as follows:  “Pain occurs when we get a physical message in our bodies that something is unsafe or needs our attention, while suffering occurs not from the initial stimuli, but what stories we tell ourselves about the pain after it hit us.”  Given this working assumptive definition, another way to say this is:  “Pain is unavoidable, and suffering is optional.”  You may have even heard this yourself while seeking to allay the pain of grief.  If so you may have wanted to punch the person who said it in the mouth.

When we are suffering the last thing we need is someone telling us we are largely responsible for our suffering and we could make it stop if we wanted to.  And rightfully so, because suffering can feel anything but intentional or optional.  And with all due respect to our grieving hearts, I am not saying that we can flip a switch and stop suffering.  What I am posing is more of a question:  “Given an opportunity to feel the pain but release the suffering, would we do what we could to make that a reality?”  If your answer is yes, keep reading.

And now we arrive at the point of today’s post:  If we could process the pain without creating suffering, I think many of us would sign up for that.  At least I would.  But spoiler alert, this can be very hard to do.  And like most things that can reduce our suffering, this too is a practice that we can implement and get good at over time but it takes intention and a willingness to try.

When someone dies, we hurt.  That is not optional.  That is inevitable, at least if we are human.  As much as we may want to be free of the pain that results after a loved one is forever gone, we also know that the pain we feel is our receipt for loving at all.  No love, no pain, its that simple.  So the more pain we feel when someone is gone, the greater the love experience must have been while they were alive.  Respectfully:  We cannot escape grief-related pain if we care about someone who has died.  I’ve tried a million different ways in the 25 years since my Daughter Alexis died and the 21 years since my Son died.  It’s a non-starter.  So maybe that’s not very encouraging.

But what is encouraging, is learning and understanding that the suffering that tags along with grief pain is something we can choose to starve, or feed.  I am treading incredibly lightly here so as not to hurt anyone or suggest that suffering is a choice.  But I am actually saying that while pain is unavoidable, we do have some control over the suffering aspect of loss.  If we can begin to understand this, we can start making choices that honor our pain but decrease our suffering.  Here is an example:

When my Daughter Alexis died, I was in shock.  Still am, if we are keeping score.  I miss her and wonder who we would all be today if she hadn’t been sick and grew into a young woman.  I long for her scent, her eyes, her grip on my little finger.  Those things are forever gone, and that hurts me, my whole being, to my core, every moment of every day.  This is what I mean by pain, it’s unavoidable if someone who we love dies.

But let’s look at the suffering aspect.  When Alexis died so many people said things intended to be comforting like “Parents are not supposed to bury their children”…or…”You don’t deserve this” or “This is not supposed to happen.”  These are well-intentioned statements, and I have no doubt that they came from a place of love and helplessness.

But when the dust settled, and I didn’t die, although I was sure I would, I had two things to contend with:  The first was my grief pain, and the second was this lingering suspicion that I must be some kind of victim or something.  If her death was not supposed to happen, then I must be able to get a “do-over” somehow.  Or maybe God forgot about me, or worse, doesn’t even  exist?  Or maybe I am being punished for stealing my moms car when I was under age?  Could I have done something to deserve this?  I will pay this price for the rest of my life…and on and on.

As long as I believe I am a victim and that something should not have happened, I am living in a space of negative energy, asking questions like:

  • “Why me, why her, why this child?
  • What did I do? What’s wrong with me?  How could I let this happen?  How could she have died?”

When I am in the space of constant insecurity, I am experiencing and contributing to my own suffering.  Please note the distinction:  I experience pain because my Daughter is dead.  But I experience suffering because I tell myself it shouldn’t have happened.

Alternatively, what if I lost my Daughter while part of a culture that understands and even celebrates the fact that death is a part of life?  What if comments from others, and my own internal dialogue stopped looking for a place to assign blame for this loss and instead, focused on reminding me I am NOT alone and not a victim?  Here are a few examples:

  • “Lisa, this is the hardest loss any parent can face, and it will probably always hurt, but women all through history have lost their children and gone on to live full lives.
  • “There is nothing you did, could have done, or can do now that has anything to do with how sick Alexis was.”
  • “Had Alexis come to another family she may not have survived as long as she did. You did everything you could to help her body grow strong.  I am so sorry for your loss.” 

As a disclaimer, I am not assuming no one said these things to me because they probably did.  But my ears only heard the negative things, the blame, the victimhood that I chose to indulge in, and I take responsibility for that.  And in a small way, I am inviting you to do the same in your own potential situation.  Because when we move from suffering (insecurity, blame, shame and guilt) to non-suffering (acceptance, forgiveness, love, gratitude and hope) our lives have a much better chance at being worthwhile.

And if we have a chance at a worthwhile life even though our hearts are fractured, why not give THAT a try?  What do we have to lose?  If we miss the suffering we can always go back to our negative, accusatory, arrogant stories of how this is our fault and reignite the suffering engine in no time flat.  So why not try the reduced-suffering route?

But how?  I get that it sounds simple, and it is.  But it is not easy!  Simple means doable, not effortlessly easy.  One way I have helped myself out of the suffering nature of my grief pain is to look for examples of others who have chosen worthwhile, over vacant suffering.  Our Western culture doesn’t hold much promise (we’re trying to change that!) in terms of building a healing path after someone dies.

Our culture promotes and celebrates youth no matter what the cost, and spits on the aging process and ultimately death.  So it is not easy to find people who speak this language.  But if we back up out of our local geography and look at other cultures we find people are not embarrassed or looked down on for grieving.  In some cultures they shave their heads as a sign of grief, so everyone knows.  In other cultures, there is almost a competition on who will get to carry the body, burn the body or say final words.

These traditions around death and dying promote respect for the dead, and support for those who survive.  When someone dies, there is no surprise.  Since life is a terminal illness (as Eckhart Tolle would say) there is an inclusion of this inevitability in daily life, instead of a “How could this happen to me?  To her?  To us?” approach.

And this brings us back to pain and suffering.  Pain is what we feel when we lose someone we love.  Suffering is what happens when we tell ourselves it is anything but natural.  Having grieved for two and a half decades I do not have any good news about the pain itself.  Grief pain is grief pain and it is unavoidable if we are alive.

But suffering is more insidious.  It is like a pain hangover that never relents.  The messages we allow into our hearts, including those from people we trust, and even those which we create can play a major role in if, when, and how much we suffer.  It may take a lifetime to sort through these differences between pain and suffering, but rest assured, you/we are not alone.

Not ever.  We are not the first generations to bury our children, parents, friends, partners, relatives and colleagues and we won’t be the last.  If we can start in the place of every coin has two sides:  life and death, we can spend less time feeling like a victim and more time tending to our open wounds that the death of our loved one has left upon us.

More self care + less self criticism = less suffering.

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