Dear Reader: I write to better understand my experiences of life; I share in the hopes that my words will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with love and loss, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, faith and uncertainty.
I know why people keep silent about their wounds. It is because when they voice their pain, they are speaking a language that few others speak. It makes people uncomfortable. They don’t know how to respond. This falls outside normal rules of banter and small talk. People fear that the bad news will be catching; they fear that another’s suffering will bring them down. Perhaps they are devotees of happiness-worship and think the person in pain is choosing to live in pain.
I know why people keep silent about their wounds. It is because they feel battered by responses that are indifferent, cold, and terribly insensitive.
When they share that a loved one is very ill, people say, “she’ll be OK,” as if saying that had magical properties. They say, “You have to stay positive,” as if bad things don’t happen to people with positive attitudes.
They say, “Everything happens for a reason,” or even, “Everything will turn out for the best,” as if our lives will eventually arrive somewhere that is The Best, and stay there forever.
When they share that a loved one has died, people say, “She is OK now,” as if they know. People say, “I am facing the same thing. My 16 year old cat has just been diagnoses with a terminal illness.” People, with barely an acknowledgement of your struggle, launch into a retelling of their Great Uncle Bert’s cancer, or the story of a neighbor’s cousin dying.
At a time when we are hurting deeply, and with great vulnerability reach out in search of comfort, these types of careless responses bring searing pain.
For those of us who have seen a friend or family member go through an extended depression, or grief over a divorce or losing a loved one, or a lengthy battle with cancer, it is hard. It is draining, we wonder why they can’t just snap out of it, and we worry that they will bring us down (in fact our conversations with them, which always go the same way, do bring us down).
For those of us who are going through an extended hardship, maintaining friendships is hard. We know we are a broken record, and we’re quite self-conscious about it. We feel unheard and invalidated by those who would suggest a quick fix, a snap-out-of-it, or a look-on-the-bright-side. For one, we can’t. We have wished it for ourselves. We have hoped, morning after morning, that today we would feel “normal.”
But sometimes we have a sense of the important inner work we are doing. Pain is also a part of the human experience. How could it not be? The body eventually starts to break down and dies. What huge losses we endure throughout our lives. By honoring our pain, living there, we are experiencing Life at a deeper level. We are honoring our healing process and trusting that however long it takes, allowing it all the time it needs will always be better than pretending to be better.
Would anyone suggest that modern society is well equipped to handle our deepest longings, questions, and pain? From before our ancestors stood upright, we grieved when we lost a loved one, and we were comforted by others. I have no doubt life had to go on, but I also imagine that life could go on while one was grieving, that there was no secrecy around grief and loss. Today you don’t bring your problems to work. I believe it’s the 11th commandment, Thou Shalt Not Cry at Work (or in the Grocery Store). When our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, would the mother who’d just lost her baby cry as she picked berries and roots? Of that I have no doubt; I also have no doubt that was accepted and not frowned upon.
What has happened, that being in the presence of someone else’s pain, of being reminded of their pain, is so uncomfortable to us? Do we feel responsible for making them better? Do we feel they are relying too heavily on us to provide their sole source of comfort?
Perhaps those of us suffering wouldn’t be so desperate for comfort and validation, if we didn’t feel our pain was ignored and invalidated in the rest of our lives, any time we leave our homes. We must put on a brave face and carry on as if we hadn’t just suffered this enormous loss, as if we were not fighting a disease that might kill us, as if Life hadn’t just ripped the rug out from under us, as if we weren’t drowning.
How would it feel, if we were allowed to be human as we went about our daily lives? I don’t think we would be so desperate for that comfort, overburdening a small group of confidantes with our pain. And those who love the person suffering would not feel so overwhelmed.
Perhaps all we need – in this crazy world that equates emoting with weakness and unprofessionalism, equates sorrow with a negative attitude, equates depression as a burden on friends – is to feel validated.
Towards the end of that particularly difficult summer as a park ranger, a collision between a vehicle and motorcycle on the highway in front of our park ended in another death (this was the fifth of that summer). All three of us rangers were on shift since it was a Friday early evening, and we all responded to the accident. When flight rescue had taken away the motorcycle driver, state patrol had come, and the scene cleaned up enough for traffic to resume normal flow, we went back into the park. The two of us working into the night took our dinner breaks. I called my mom because I knew in an hour I would resume working my shift as if nothing had happened, and I needed to tell someone. I told her there had been another death, and I sobbed. I sobbed through my break, then washed my face and tucked my sorrow away, in order to be prepared for whatever the evening might bring on a busy summer weekend at the park.
What happens to us, every time we have to tuck away our horror, pain and confusion? When do we get to let that out? Or are most of us limited to that one-hour break before we have to pull ourselves together? Or venting to our dwindling group of friends until we burn out another friendship?
What would happen if, instead, we lived in a society that understood we are all living the human experience, every day, and every one of us suffers horrendous pain and loss at some point? What would happen if the trip to the grocery store, or the eight hours at work, didn’t require us to stuff it? What if we weren’t all pretending to be “normal” all the time? It’s hard to imagine, silly really: one man embracing another, in tears, at the water cooler; a woman at the grocery store crying over a magazine. But if I imagine before our culture became so artificial, so distanced from the ebbs and flows of the human life, it isn’t so silly. One man embracing another, in tears, as they fashion a plough for the fields; a woman’s tears wetting the soil where she plants seedlings.
Would it be easier for us to move on, if first we were allowed to fully honor our loss?
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