What To Do When It Hurts

By Scott Westerman
Listen to an audio version of this message.

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”

Why would a motivational guy who preaches a positive attitude start your new week with a piece on pain? As I’ve studied the lives of successful, happy people, there is one common thread in every story: They have all suffered.

All of us will experience pain and profound loss. That’s part and parcel of life. So how does the healthy, self actualized person cope with it?

First, some myths and facts from from the Center for Grief and Healing.

  • MYTH: The pain will go away faster if you ignore it.
    FACT:  Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing it is necessary to face your pain and actively deal with it.
  • MYTH: It’s important to be “be strong” in the face of loss.
    FACT: Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss. Crying doesn’t mean you are weak. You don’t need to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your true feelings can help them and you.
  • MYTH: If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss.
    FACT: Crying is a normal response to sadness, but it’s not the only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.
  • MYTH: Grief should last about a year.
    FACT: There is no right or wrong time frame for grieving. How long it takes can differ from person to person
  • MYTH: Moving on with your life means you’re forgetting the one you lost.
    FACT: Moving on means you’ve accepted the loss of a job, a relationship or your loved one’s death. That’s not the same as forgetting. You can create a new life and still keep your loved one’s memory a part of you.
  • MYTH: Friends can help by not bringing up the subject.
    FACT: People who are grieving usually want and need to talk about their loss. Bringing up the subject can make it easier to talk about.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘ Five Stages of Grief are based on studies of the terminally ill, but they fit any major hurt you may have felt. They are:

  • Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
  • Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
  • Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
  • Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  • Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”

If we don’t allow ourselves to move through these stages, our brain and body may manifest a wide array of uncomfortable and unhealthy side-effects, from guilt and sadness, to fear and anger. Physical symptoms like fatigue, weight change, insomnia and a weaker immune system can also be common.

Suffering is not fun. No two ways about it.

As Kenji Miyazawa says, “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” Whatever the source of your pain, there are some  important thing you can do begin to heal.

Get Help – Open up to your closest friends and family. That’s what they are there for. Find a safe place where you can be vulnerable. Talk with a professional. For many of us, the very thought of engaging a mental health professional might feel like a sign of weakness. Actually, it’s a sign of courage and strength. And it can be a major step in the healing process.

Take Care of Yourself – Don’t keep your pain in a box.  Acknowledge it. Experience it fully. It may never go totally away, but when you allow yourself to feel the full brunt of the pain, it invariably softens. Do something tangible to express your feelings. Journal, create art, or get involved in a cause that touches that part of you that hurts. And when you are hurting emotionally, it’s very important to take care of yourself physically. Avoid things that dull the pain, like drugs and alcohol. Begin or refocus on your exercise program. Eat properly.

Don’t Let Others Tell You How to Feel – Pain and grief are all about you. Express it in your own way without checking any emotions, tears or laughter along the way. Don’t try to hurry it our avoid it. Just feel it.  You will let go when you are ready to let go.

Persevere – One of my favorite quotes is, “gratitude turns grief into joy”. So be grateful for the experiences you’ve had, good or bad. Winston Churchill wrote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going”. Pain and loss impact our character one way or another. Allow it to be the fire that strengthens your resolve to do good things.

And never, ever lose faith. Victory eventually comes to those who persevere. Our most important achievements almost always were made by men and women who have suffered greatly, but kept on trying.