Life Gives Us Pain, but Misery is Optional
When a deep and profound love is ripped apart by death, how does the surviving person move on with life? What is it that allows one person to bear and work through the grief while another is devastated for years? A loving survivor is bound to grieve—a great love has been severed—but how does one hold the misery at bay and not be engulfed by it? Does excessive mourning indicate a deeper love, a more heartfelt loss? Or does it demonstrate a lack of adequate tools to process grief and go on with living? Thomas Strawser, writer, grief specialist provides answers to these questions and more in this article.
by Thomas Strauser
When a deep and profound love is ripped apart by death, how does the surviving person move on with life? What is it that allows one person to bear and work through the grief while another is devastated for years? A loving survivor is bound to grief—a great love has been severed—but how does one hold the misery at bay and not be engulfed by it? Does excessive mourning indicate a deeper love, a more heartfelt loss? Or does it demonstrate a lack of adequate tools to process grief and go on with living?
These are a few of the questions I have had to face as I have lost people in my life. I have lost my mother and father, seven siblings, my 19-year-old daughter in a car accident, and my wife of twenty one years to cancer. I lost my eyesight in 1994 and spent months without knowing if I would ever see again. I know fear and grief very well.
After almost committing suicide following a divorce in 1979, I embarked on a search to find a way to enjoy life. One of my first realizations was that no matter what I do, how spiritually fit I become, what my attitude is, or what material possessions I acquire, life will deal me some blows. Life happens. All of us will face disappointment, experience fear, and lose people we love. All of us will hurt and cry. All of us will experience pain.
It was not my emotional pain, however, that caused my almost suicide; it was my unhealthy thinking patterns. I call these patterns “emotional misery.”
You see, pain in itself is beneficial. It signals to you that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. What would happen if you broke an arm and it didn’t hurt?
Like physical pain, emotional pain is a symptom of something gone awry, of an emotional wound that needs to be addressed. But there is a difference between emotional pain and emotional misery. Emotional pain is what you feel in response to a great loss. Emotional misery is extending that pain, in depth or time, and wallowing in it or being consumed by it.
It includes angry, worry, anxiety, fear, guilt, jealousy, remorse, resentments and other emotions that add nothing positive to life. Misery can result in physical discomfort – tense stomach, tightness of the chest, high blood pressure, sleeping problems, eating disorders—and can be ignited by self-pity, selfishness, and self-centeredness or by trying to control conditions over which I have no power.
Life gives us pain, but misery is optional. This insight pushed me toward finding a method to help me face and process the pain without allowing it to develop into misery.
Journaling helped. Writing highlighted that my feelings often followed my thinking and that I couldn’t always control my thinking. When I thought good, loving thoughts, I had peace of mind. When I thought selfish or self-centered thoughts, I experienced one of the misery feelings like anger, fear, guilt, or worry.
So all I had to do was tell my mind to think good thoughts and I’d feel good. Except it wasn’t that easy. When I started to feel bad, I invariably started thinking about what caused that feeling. The more I thought about the situation and how it affected me, the worse the feeling got. The more intense the feeling, the more I thought about the situation or person. And on and on. I found that I could not always control my mind and make it stop thinking along lines that hurt me.
Grief definitely made me more vulnerable to this downward spiral of misery. When my heart was broken, when that sense of loss dominated my outlook, I just didn’t have any reservoir of strength left to break this cycle.
Writing about this helped me see a couple of things more clearly:
My mind has a mind of its own when I am suffering certain emotions. I cannot always simply redirect my thinking using just my will power.
A campfire is easier to extinguish than a blazing forest fire. My troublesome feelings are best handled when they are small.
Mind control. If my feelings respond so directly to my thinking, and I don’t have the power to control my thinking, what do I do? The answer was really simple. I had to find an additional source of power to help me.
I discovered energy inside of me that had always been there but I had never known existed. I was like an electric fan that was not connected to the electricity. This fan has to be plugged in to the unseen power of electricity. This fan has to be plugged in to the unseen power of electricity flowing behind the walls. Likewise, I also had to access this unseen reservoir of spiritual power before it would work in my life. Today I call this spiritual power God, but what I call it is not as important as my personal relation to this source.
I can relate. Relationships. Everyone always comes back to relationships, doesn’t it? Journaling also helped me understand that things can never make me miserable. All my emotional pain and my misery come from relationships. And there are only three types of relationships.
A spiritual relationship
A relationship with self
Relationships with other people
The Natural Order of Relationships lists the types of possible relationship in the order of their priority. My relationship with the spiritual power is my top priority, followed by my relationship with myself and then my relationship with others.
Misery invariably results when I get the priority of these relationships out of this natural order. No one would try to put a roof on my house without first having a foundation and the supporting structure of the walls. The spiritual relationship is the foundation that I need to build an honest relationship with my self. It helps me to honestly face myself, accept myself, and slowly learn to humbly love myself.
I can have loving relationships with other people only after these two relationships are recognized and given attention. The injunction to “Love your neighbor as yourself” tells me that I have to learn to love myself in a healthy way before I can give or receive love from others.
Keeping relationships in this natural order is hard in normal times, but becomes excruciatingly difficult when someone close to me dies. My whole world, every fiber of my being, every thought, every emotion centers on the relationship that I feel is severed; however, experience has taught me that if I ignore these first two relationships in my grief, I always fall into misery.
Now, some misery – some anger, guilt, remorse, etc. may be inevitable in grief. I am human. But understanding this natural order gives me a way out of misery when I choose to use it.
When I went through grief before I found this personal spiritual connection, I had no way to control my thinking. I would always start thinking about some of the things I wish I had said or done, or feeling guilty about some of the things I had said or done. My mind focused on how much I missed the person and on all the things that we would miss sharing. In some cases I was angry and blamed someone for the death; in some, I cried and screamed at God about how unfair it was.
Putting some time and effort into these first two relationships has helped me change these reactions as I have moved through more recent losses. Of course, I still hurt, cry, and mourn when I lose someone that is close to me. But now, this additional source of power actually helps change my thinking when I just follow a few simple guidelines.
A few simple steps
How do I do it? I simply ask God for help, tell him that my thinking is hurting me, that I want to change, and that I can’t do it on my own. I ask Him to direct my thinking to something good for me. I sometimes have to ask this over and over. Then I have to take action.
Action is to prayer what fuel is to a car. You can think about a road trip from Atlanta to Denver and make the decision to go, but you won’t be one mile nearer to Denver without action; you have to get in the car and drive. The same logic applies when you want to change your feelings. If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep feeling the way you’re feeling. Nothing changes, NOTHING changes.
Acting up. Sometimes I have to act my way into right thinking if I can’t think my way into right acting. When I can’t seem to change the way I think or feel, I just try to take a positive, healthy action. Some actions that have helped me move through these misery feelings when I have been grieving include caring for a pet, going for a walk, starting an exercise program, and volunteering at the hospital or soup kitchen.
The more I hurt the more imperative it is that I take a healthy action. God definitely helps change my thinking and my feelings, but I sometimes need to get off the couch and do something for myself.
Just for today. Living “one day at a time” is great advice but it is easier said than done. It is even more difficult when immersed in grief. Everyone pretty well accepts that you can’t go back even in time and change even the minutest fact. All the wishing in the world won’t take you back five minutes or five days and change a solitary thing. Feeling guilt, anger, or remorse over something that happened, or failed to happen in the past, doesn’t accomplish anything and often just drags you down.
Fear of the future is the same. No one really believes in what I call the “Positive Power of Worry,” the idea that by worrying you can actually give off a power that will prevent something from happening. Few people think that they can control physical events if they worry hard enough and long enough.
This spiritual connection can be a great help in overcoming this destructive time-travel thinking. Ask God to help you keep your mind in today in the exact moment that you are in right now. Repeat that request over and over when you catch yourself slipping into agonizing thoughts of the past or future.
Letting go. When you lose someone, you may have a few things that you just can’t put to rest about that relationship. Journal them. Write a letter describing the event and feeling that is bothering you. Be specific. Write names, dates and places. Describe what you would do or say to the person if you had the chance, what you are feeling about his, and why it is important to you. Then, in prayer, read your letter to God, ask Him to convey it to your loved one, and make a commitment that you will repeat this directly to him or her when your relationship is re-joined. Destroy the letter and know that these things are behind you.
As I said in the beginning I have known grief and fear, and these four tools have helped me through these very hurtful times:
Learning the difference between pain and misery
Understanding the Natural Order of Relationships
Establishing a connection with my inner spiritual power, and practicing a few tools I have mentioned, have helped me through these very hurtful times.
One last idea that also has helped me tremendously is the absolute conviction that love is eternal—that death is an interruption and not the end of a loving relationship. It’s a comma, not a period. Editor’s Note: To learn more from Tom Strawser, read his book “Healthy Grieving”. To order a copy, visit www.mylivingsolutions.com.