Last week we looked at some differences between pain and suffering with the goal of trying to understand what we can learn to do, if anything to reduce them both. As a quick recap, we noted that pain is the loss we feel when someone we love dies and suffering is what we can develop as a result of what we believe about the loss itself.
For purposes of that post I resisted the urge to share formal definitions of the words “pain” and “suffering” from an authoritative source, and instead relied on my own aggregate experience with pain and suffering over the last few decades as a reference point. This week, I am returning to an authoritative source to help me address a concept we haven’t yet touched on: Unconscionable Pain.
Referring to the Cornell Law Library, the word “unconscionable” is defined as an adjective that means:
- Without a conscience;
- So unfair or unjust that it shocks the conscience.
As we open this discussion of unconscionable pain, I am specifically talking about the kind of pain that results from actions that were without a conscience, unscrupulous, and so unfair or unjust that it shocks the conscience.
When we are in deep grief, we might be tempted to ask the question: Isn’t all pain unconscionable? For me that would look something like: Two of my children died, and that is pretty unconscionable. But even though I am committed to treating myself with the same compassion and love that I share with others who are hurting, in this case I have to answer that question in the negative. So “no” although my pain has been profound and long lasting, I don’t qualify it as unconscionable. My Daughter and Son had bone marrow disease. Their bodies never worked properly. Although this was of no comfort to me early on in my grief, years later I can now see that there is a difference between losing someone to illness, and say, suicide, accident or murder.
Please know that the goal of this post is not to compare experiences of pain and grief from loss. As I noted in a post a couple years ago, no one wins a grief match. The goal of this post is to highlight that in certain circumstances, the violent death of a loved one carries its own kind of pain, and therefore its own kind of suffering. If we believe, or know that our loved one was in physical or mental duress that was inflicted onto their otherwise healthy and thriving body, we may carry an extra weight on our path to healing.
We discussed that suffering results from the things we “tell” ourselves about that death. Specifically, if we are routinely told, and/or tell ourselves “This should not have happened” we can unnecessarily spend energy being angry and frustrated instead of trying to learn how to survive. It is natural for this feeling to arise in the early stages of grief, but as we learn to integrate our pain, we may find that time and space help us focus on how we can try to live a meaningful life without the person who died, instead of clinging to some idea that the Universe is out to get us, that we are a victim, and that we don’t “deserve” whatever loss we have experienced.
But I imagine suffering that results from unconscionable pain is a little bit different. For example, a high school friend of my ended his life by suicide with a gunshot to the head. Yes, my heart broke when it happened, but I also found myself imagining what he experienced as he died alone in a pool of his own blood. I am not obsessed with the macabre nature of this scene. It is just that, it was hard to grieve his death without also holding on to that image. In this way, I found the pain to be unconscionable.
A tragic situation that most of us can relate to as we explore this experience of unconscionable pain, was seen in the events of 9/11. We helplessly witnessed our fellow humans jumping out of windows a hundred stories high to avoid fire and explosion. Personally, I couldn’t help but think about their terror and desperation in making such a choice to jump. Since I didn’t know any of those specific folks personally, the pain didn’t evolve into a sense of suffering that I couldn’t shake. But for those close to people who jumped to their deaths from burning buildings, they have more to contend with then say, someone who died of terminal illness.
This distinction is being made because it is important to understand that if our loved one died in a violent way, it may be more complicated to avoid suffering than it is for the rest of us. I realize this may sound offensive if your heart is broken from the death of a loved one. But if you think about it for a minute: As we try to navigate a healing path due to grief, we may find that effort further complicated by the details surrounding the death if there was violence involved. For example, losing someone who died in their sleep may result in a less complicated grief experience than if their loved one took their own life or jumped from a burning building.
Pain is pain. There is no merit in comparing our hurtful experiences of despair. But I share this distinction to alert anyone who is in grief, and also knew their loved one was in pain prior to their life ending, that you are not alone in revisiting the scene of that loss over and over again. It is natural for our brains to paint a picture of what happened if we weren’t there, holding someone’s hand as they drew their final breath (which is hard enough without a violent memory!)
If the death was abrupt, an accident, a murder or a suicide we may be stuck with these images that we can’t shake. The unconscionable nature of inflicted violence whether from an auto accident or a gun shot may leave us with images that we cannot reconcile. Just imagine (with all due respect) being the parent or sibling of George Floyd (may he rest in Peace) and having the murder of your child streaming through every digital device from phones to big screens, over and over and over again, everywhere where you went. We cannot begin to imagine the impact these images have on our ability to heal from the death itself. We cannot imagine how hard it would be to shake that visual nightmare.
Should you find yourself in the category of being the victim of unconscionable pain resulting from the violent death of your loved one, I encourage you to be very generous with yourself as you try to survive. While suffering from the pain of loss can be made worse by getting stuck on the mechanism of death, in these cases we cannot blame ourselves for thinking about the scene of loss again and again. Alternatively, we need to understand that this type of violence should naturally offend our sensibilities as human beings. If they don’t, we have another problem.
Let’s protect our minds and hearts from violent images by using discretion about what we allow to penetrate our consciousness in the name of “news” or even “entertainment.” Our mind should be a sacred space that only allows specific entrants to visit. We are what we think about, and certainly what we look at. If we have lost a loved one to violence, we may not have that choice. But what we can have is compassion for ourselves and a commitment to try and let go of that memory so that we have a chance at living a life of quality, whatever that means to each of us individually.
As a last thought, regardless of the mechanism that took your loved one from you, remember that your pain is real, not fabricated, and is worthy of your attention and curiosity. Taking comfort that others have walked the Earth with similar losses is not a consolation prize, but it can help ease the isolation that arises when we think we are the only ones this ever happened to.
Wishing each of us Peace on this journey of trying to heal. We are not alone. 🦋🙏🏼🤗