Perhaps one of the most painful challenges of a relationship is when you are unexpectedly struck by a painful event. This could be the abrupt death of a loved one, a frightening health diagnosis, or job loss, just to name a few. It is frightening to know how we will get through these hard times together.
When we come together in love, we have dreams of a beautiful life together and hopes of sustained love. Rarely do we imagine the hard times that will come our way. However, life has a way of derailing us with unexpected heartbreaking and sometimes frightening hardships that you will go through together.
When it does, you will face many challenges. Initially, if this was an abrupt painful event, you may be in shock before going on to experience a wide range of emotions. And it is so hard to cope with the thoughts and feelings that a painful event will elicit: feelings such as sadness, fear and uncertainty for example. It is the overwhelming nature of these feelings that I want to discuss.
I also know that, during challenging times, both of you will worry about each other. Perhaps this is the biggest challenge of all – dealing with the helplessness that you feel when you see each other’s pain.
Sheryl Sandberg (FB CEO whose husband died abruptly while on vacation) was interviewed recently about “How to help someone who’s grieving” or going through a challenging time in their life. Just to note, it is important to remember that we will grieve any ‘loss’ in our life – whether it is a health diagnosis, job loss, trauma – anything that changes our life is something we grieve. We grieve the loss of what we once had, such as a normal life, being healthy and so on.
I liked many of the suggestions in the article and am happy that she is igniting this conversation. We need to talk about how to help people (and ourselves) during painful and challenging times.
However, there was one section in the article that I would like to comment on because I have concerns about a suggested response to a person in pain.
At one point in Sheryl’s grieving her therapist said “You should think about how things could be worse – your husband could have had a heart attack while driving with your children and you would have lost all three”. While this may be true – I had a strong reaction to this statement.
Let me first say that there may be some people who feel better when they imagine how it could be worse, but there are others who will actually feel worse with a statement such as this one. There is a high probability that a person on the receiving end of this statement will not feel understood in their pain. They may feel that their pain is being minimized at a time when validation, empathy and compassion are needed.
Sheryl said that gratitude was healing while grieving. I understand that perspective and gratitude is invaluable for many, but empathy, compassion and validation come first – always (and perhaps it did in her therapy). When it’s the right time we might be able to move toward gratitude and perspective (all of us find different ways to get through hard times). However, it must be presented gently and with love and understanding.
Perhaps a way to make this kind of statement when the person has already spent time grieving (timing is so important) is to say, “I’m so glad that you still have the comfort of your children”. It’s a subtle and yet big difference. It introduces the factor of gratitude for something positive, rather than for something that ‘could have been worse’. It also avoids telling the person how they ‘should’ think and feel, denying where they are at in the present.
More than anything, we need connection with others when we are in pain. If we feel that our pain is not understood, acknowledged, validated and empathized with, we feel alone and lonely in our pain.
It may seem counterintuitive (because validation and empathy allow you to feel your pain on a deeper level) but when your pain is validated and empathized and you feel understood – it allows you to move through your grief. If you don’t feel understood in your pain, it is likely you will stay there until you receive that understanding.
Building inner strength:
I will always remember a woman I worked with soon after the passing of her husband of thirty years. She told me that he was the love of her life. Obviously, their relationship was not perfect, but still he was the love of her life and her grief was heavy. He was sick for almost two years before he passed – both of them knew that he would die. I was struck when she told me that she continued to exercise every day during the period she was taking care of him. “It saved me,” she said. I believe it helped her husband as well – he needed to see her functioning as normally as possible and taking care of herself and her needs when he could not do so.
I took her words to heart when life threw me a curve ball. When I was faced with an unexpected painful time in my life, I found it extremely challenging to rely and build on my inner strength. And yet, every morning I did my yoga for at least five minutes (if I did not have the inner strength to do more) and if I was questioning if I had sufficient inner strength, it helped – a lot. Also, as odd it this might sound to you, I turned to nature (walks in the park, for instance). There is something about being swallowed up by nature that is comforting to me. But that is what worked for me; you need to find what works for you.
For me, doing yoga every morning provided me with routine. There is something about maintaining, as much as possible, a normal life and a normal routine during hard times. Most of us count on the normalcy of a day, despite the boredom we might sometimes feel in our life. When that normalcy and routine is taken from us – it shakes up our world.
Finally, I turned to those who would help support me and hold me up. Receiving care, compassion, empathy and a listening ear from others can lift you up just enough to get through the day. The tricky part might be finding people who can listen with an empathetic ear. Read my blog on how to help someone in pain – it might help you learn what you need from another person. Empathy from others built my inner strength.
Hope for Growth:
As you navigate this time in your life, I hope that you discover parts of you and your relationship that you did not know existed, for example strength or compassion or patience. I hope that you gain a knowing that once you get thought this, you can get through hard times if and when they come again. Try not to fear the days that you don’t feel strong. On those days, do whatever it is that you need to do to see you through to the next day. Hold each other tight and take time alone when you need it.
Try to recognize that both of you may have different ways to get through this challenging time in your life and that’s okay. However, it has the potential to cause a rift between the two of you if one needs to talk and the other prefers to process silently, for example. The best that you can do is to recognize these differences as simply being different. It is not meant to hurt you.
I hope that during hard times that you will not only take care of each other but you will take care of yourself as well. This will be hard to do. Finally, when you feel that you cannot be there for each other, this is the time for self-care, self-love, and self-compassion – all the things that so many of us struggle to do when we need it the most. And yet, this is the time when it is more important than ever.
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If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!
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One more thing… I really would love for you to share your thoughts with me. It’s not easy to do, I understand because it took me a long time to work up the courage to begin blogging! But I want to get to know you. When you feel ready, please feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section. And, if you would like me to blog about a specific topic – let me know!
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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
Photo Credit: Christian Gonzales@flicker.comShare