When I was working in a law firm several years ago, one of my co-workers (I’ll call her Barbara — not her real name) unexpectedly lost her husband. When I heard the news through mutual colleagues, I felt so bad for her.
Losing one’s husband is a devastating experience; I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to have to return to work a few days later, still at the raw beginning of the grief, and stepping back into that daily routine when your heart and mind have been through such a trauma.
Because I didn’t really know Barbara (we didn’t work in the same department, so didn’t interact much), I projected that if I were her, I would be on the verge of huge bawling tears all the time and would just be trying to survive the day by closing my office door and keeping as quiet as possible.
So I never said anything to her. No “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “How are you doing?” or “What can I do to make your day easier?” I just gave her space. I figured that she wouldn’t want to have strangers in her business. But I was silently aware of her suffering.
Years later, I still think of her and regret not saying anything in support. Was she feeling alone? Was she feeling overwhelmed? Was she quietly seething at her bosses who expected her to keep on trucking and bill those hours?
We’ve all seen someone in pain. And unless you’re completely devoid of emotion and empathy, it’s really hard to see someone struggling. Whether they’re in physical pain, or in emotional pain, you want to do anything you can to relieve it but often don’t know how, or what the right thing is.
And when you can’t relieve it, or you don’t know how to approach it within the approved social rules, it can be tempting to avoid the person altogether or make a symbolic gesture and then back away. Or it can be tempting to just pretend that nothing happened. Or we can be so caught up in our own pain that it becomes difficult to see it in others.
One of the reasons I later decided to become a counsellor is because I didn’t like to see people in pain and I wanted to be able to help them relieve it. I wanted to know what the right response was: what can I do or say to make it better? How can I be a good and supportive person?
I learned pretty fast that there is no perfect way. There is no quick fix for suffering. And that even good and kind people can make mistakes when talking to others about their struggles.
And even when you think you’re being a “good and kind” person, the one who is struggling might not want or need what you are able to offer.
The time at work passed for Barbara. Pretty soon she was back at her regular pace. People stopped being sensitive to her loss and acted like all was normal. But it wasn’t normal for her.
For those who are going through grief and loss, or depression, or traumatic experiences, or even long periods of just feeling off and stuck, it’s not just something that they get over quickly.
True healing takes times — sometimes months, years, decades. The crisis ends and the long period of processing begins.
The patience of being supportive
Even the most empathetic and caring people can run out of steam over years and decades. Empathy is an active skill — it takes energy to be able to be extremely present with someone.
Suffering and struggling is also incredibly exhausting and overwhelming for the person experiencing it. Anyone who has suffered becomes impatient with themselves, wanting relief as soon as possible.
But true healing takes time, and no one can predict or control how long it takes or how exactly to go about it. Everyone has different responses to pain.
The fixers in us don’t like it when we can’t fix. In the face of real pain, we feel kind of helpless, not knowing what to do.
And the people on the other side of the dynamic — the sufferers — don’t really want to be subjects to fix either. When someone takes on the role of “rescuer,” that means the other person has to take on the role of “helpless victim” — and neither of these roles are really authentic.
In my blog post about helping those who don’t want to be helped, I spoke about the shadow side of the helper/help-ee dynamic.
But what about the middle ground? When you know you can’t fix anyone and don’t intend to, but want to be an empathetic and supportive friend. Or when you are struggling a lot yourself, and you just want to be able to talk about what you’re going through, but you don’t want to feel like you’re complaining or burdening people.
What happens when the issue isn’t clear-cut and easily solvable? What happens if the unraveling and processing takes a long time before relief is found? What if it’s a matter of years, not days?
It can be difficult to stay in that space of stuck-ness for an extended period of time; on both sides of the dynamic.
When I’m suffering, I want to talk about what I’m experiencing, but I also don’t like people giving me advice or trying to fix me — I trust myself with my own healing and determining what I need. So I tend to stay quiet until I’m past the raw emotion.
When I see others suffer, I’m not a perfect friend or counsellor either. Even though I try my best to be there for someone and to be as empathetic as possible, I’ve also missed my share of opportunities to really connect to another’s true feelings if I mistakenly assume they would like to heal privately or they’re feeling better when they aren’t.
There is no perfect way to address suffering, and no perfect response. There are no real “shoulds” — only those we impose on each other because it makes us feel so uncomfortable.
This post isn’t about trying to be perfect; it’s about acknowledging the uncomfortable and uncertain aspects of supporting and being supported while struggling over long periods of time.
The need for relief
Whenever someone is in pain, it’s natural to want to find relief for that pain — whether we’re experiencing it ourselves, or we’re witnessing others going through it.
We human beings have found a multitude of ways to give us a little bit of relief, even if we have to lie to ourselves and ignore the underlying wound.
We’ve been taught as a society that we have to be strong; that having pain (especially emotional pain) is a weakness; that having significant problems is a moral failure.
So we can’t stand being in this place for long. It feels bad physically and emotionally, and our egos don’t like seeming weak or vulnerable to anyone else.
We make resilience into a virtue. We believe that getting past it is just a simple choice. Negativity is to be avoided as much as possible. Just think positive and you’ll be fine! If you get over it quickly, that means that you’re strong!
We like to believe that if we just do the right thing, or push our way through it, we can avoid or ameliorate pain so that we don’t have to feel it.
We don’t want to have to feel our own pain or anyone else’s for very long; it’s just too much.
Pain is stressful and it wreaks havoc on the body, eventually leading to burnout. And coming back from burnout takes time, effort, and determination. We get impatient for our return to health and balance.
And in the absence of finding a long term and permanent solution, we just try to find some relief.
However, we often turn to action for this relief, instead of just being present with the pain.
The action of crisis
When we fancy ourselves to be rescuers or saviours of sort, we’ll leap in to help whenever there is a crisis. Crises are action-oriented events, which allow us to see ourselves as heroes and survivors. The adrenaline alone makes us charge forward to help.
We’ll contribute money, we’ll find resources, we’ll advocate on behalf of victims, we’ll suggest options, we’ll strategize a plan. We’ll find shelter and food, and provide for transportation and safety needs. We’ll send flowers and offer babysitting services.
When a crisis happens, these are the first things we do to when we need to mobilize. Often, the person in crisis isn’t able to process his or her feelings at the time, so we just focus on their physical needs and help provide solutions or ideas we think of that can provide a quick fix.
It helps us to be active; to feel like we’re doing something beneficial. We can even get pleasure from helping others because most of us like to feel needed in some way.
The action allows us to see an immediate effect of our efforts towards relief of pain.
But what happens after the crisis is over? What happens when the survivor is left with all his or her feelings and pain?
We like to think we’re people who will be “good listeners” or “good friends.” We’ll provide a shoulder to lean on. We’ll have some deep conversations over coffee. But how long will we actually do this after the crisis is over?
Many people who have lost loved ones report that after the death there is lots of initial support, but in the weeks, months, and years after, their loved one is barely mentioned and no one asks how the grief process is for the ones left behind. Yet, the pain of loss still remains for some because everyone grieves differently and in their own time.
The aloneness of pain
When you’re the one suffering, it’s hard to be alone with your pain. No one else seems to understand — they’re not in your head day in and day out.
When you’re seeing someone else suffering, unless you’ve gone through it yourself (and even then, every experience is different), you don’t really know what they’re feeling. You may think you know, and you can try to step into their shoes, but you can’t feel their pain for them.
It can be easy to drop into the feeling of helplessness and just try to avoid what’s going on. When this happens, we start to tell ourselves things as a kind of justification:
The witnesses begin to think:
- They’re ok. I don’t need to check in.
- They should be over it by now.
- They probably don’t want to talk about it anymore.
- There isn’t a crisis and I have stuff to do, so I’ll just leave it in their hands.
- Someone who is closer to them will take care of them.
- I don’t know what to do, so I’ll do nothing.
- I don’t want to bring up the pain again because I don’t want to cause more suffering, so I won’t talk to them about it.
- I want him/her to be better and to be happy.
- I don’t know what to do to make it better.
The sufferers begin to think:
- I’m all alone.
- I shouldn’t feel this way.
- I should be feeling better by now.
- This shouldn’t be happening to me.
- No one understands me.
- I can’t stand feeling this way.
- I don’t know what to do to make it better.
- No one cares how I’m really feeling.
These are all responses (via our thoughts and beliefs) to feeling hopeless, helpless, and powerless in the face of suffering.
Being present with the pain
When we’re faced with emotional pain, we try to bypass it by using our relief techniques — which includes avoiding, defending, numbing, or displacing our feelings. We’ll do anything not to be in this kind of pain.
What we’re essentially telling ourselves is that it’s not okay to feel the way we do. And that leads us to feeling ashamed about being in pain. Which will cause even more pain.
Further, when we can’t stand feeling or acknowledging our own pain, it’s really hard to be present for someone else’s. If someone you care about is in pain, and you have difficulty being present with your own feelings, it’s going to be really difficult for you to provide the empathy they need.
Acknowledging and accepting the pain is the first step — whichever side of the coin you are on. What am I feeling? Am I feeling scared? Frustrated? Anxious? Helpless? Alone?
Where does that feeling show up in my body?
When you are in a relaxed state, allow yourself to scan your body from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes. Where is there tension? Where is there resistance? Where is there tenderness? Where is your body feeling the pain?
If you can, allow your feelings and sensations to speak up for themselves. Allow their voices to be heard.
This may be uncomfortable if you’re not used to tuning in to your body — we’ve been taught to push everything up into our minds so that we can logically sort them into categories and boxes. But your body just wants to FEEL. It needs to feel in order to be healthy, and to provide healthy responses to other people too.
And just be present with those feelings and sensations for however long it takes them to subside. You’ll find that there is a rhythm to pain: sometimes it is slow and soft, and sometimes it is fast and intense. Your job is merely to feel it and listen to the tune it’s playing for you.
The need for curiosity and non-judgment
The allowing part of being present with our pain, and the pain of others, is about letting it be without telling it to get the heck out of Dodge. It’s going through enough — it doesn’t need to feel guilty or ashamed about existing.
We can’t simultaneously allow our feelings and try to relieve them. That’s like inviting some really interesting people to your party but then bullying them until they get out. All you’ll be left with is crabby guests who don’t have much to say, and you’ll want to leave your own party yourself.
Because if we shut out the pain, we’ll also shut out all the joy too. We can’t numb or ignore only some of our emotions but not others; we have to commit to the whole shebang or nothing. Putting up fences and barriers keeps everyone out; not just the unruly ones.
If we are to allow our emotions, we can’t judge them for being there. Allowing them means to receive them with grace. Let them tell you what they need to — they’re only acting in your best interest.
Emotions add colour to our experiences — they add the contrast and shadow, as well as the light and the brightness.
Emotions point us to what’s going wrong, or what is going well. They allow us to advocate for ourselves, to connect more deeply, to learn how to love, and to act in ways that serve our deepest soul’s desires.
Curiosity helps us understand what we are really feeling, and it helps us to attune to the feelings of people who are struggling. When we ask open-ended questions about pain, we get to the heart of the matter more quickly: How are you feeling today? What do you need today? What has this experience been like for you? Tell me more about that.
When we aren’t judging our emotions, or the emotions of someone else, we are able to discover more. What is really going on within? What is being hidden away in shame? What aspects want to come to light?
We can come towards each other in empathy, because we value the vulnerability of being human. We are able to ask “How are you feeling” and really want the authentic answer. We will be able to talk about pain openly, and we will be able to let it be present in our lives.
Empathy isn’t about pitying people who are in pain and calling them victims. It isn’t about thinking they should be feeling something else or doing the “right” thing to get out of it. Empathy is sitting with the pain, allowing it to just be. Hearing its voice, loving it, and being a nurturing presence.
When we can be empathetic, curious, and non-judgmental with our own feelings, we are able to give those to others as well; we can then sustain the support over time so that healing can take place naturally.
Leave a comment and tell us how you are able to be present with pain and suffering.
What helps you connect to yourself and to others in difficult times?
When you’re struggling, how do you prefer to be supported?
Keep shining the insight light,