I was on my hands and knees on the floor, and I wasn’t sure how I got there.
It was three o’clock in the morning, and I stumbled out of bed to use the bathroom. But on the way back, it hit me again as though for the first time: Ruth was dead.
She died a few weeks ago, and she wasn’t coming back. Ever.
The rawness of reality hit me hard in the stomach. I doubled over as a long wail rose from my gut and came out of my mouth as though it had a life of its own—as though it was possessed by some mad demon of grief.
I found myself on the floor, keening and sobbing.
“Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” I gasped. The awful truth—the person I loved most in the world was gone forever—had broken through the thin protection from awareness that sleep provided.
Grief had cold-cocked me right in the heart.
The rest of the story
In most self-improvement blogs, including mine, this would be the point in the story where I would say, “But then _______ (fill in the blank) happened,” and everything was better.
I would give you several bullet points so that you, too, can feel better than ever right away! Act now!
But that’s not what happened.
The rest of the story is that I cried so hard on my hand and knees, I thought I was going to vomit.
I cried and wailed to Ruth about how much I missed her.
I thought the pain would never end. And it didn’t.
Finally, exhausted and my tears spent, I was able to crawl into bed and go back to sleep.
The truth about pain
It wasn’t pretty.
It wasn’t easy.
There wasn’t any checklist of bullet points for me to follow that made it better.
The next day, I recounted the episode to my friend, Laurie, who is one of those people who can spiritually attune to other people’s wavelengths.
“It’s not like the movies, Laurie,” I said. “They make it seem so romantic when someone is grieving.”
Laurie looked at me lovingly and replied softly, “Pain is only romantic at a distance.”
No truer thing was ever said.
I was watching The Amazing Spiderman the other night and chuckled a bit when Spiderman, resting after an epic fight with The Lizard, looks down at his gashed torso and says, “That completely sucked!”
That’s how it is with pain.
I made it through my horrible wailing night, but it wasn’t the last such episode that I would experience. Intense grief was a long-term companion for me, and I was wracked with painful spasms for a few years before my grief finally ebbed away to a manageable distance.
It completely sucked.
On the nature of pain
I’m very close to my older sister, Susie. She’s been telling me about the pain she’s having in her joints.
It moves around, this pain. Sometimes it’s in her feet, sometimes in her shoulders, and right now it’s in her fingers. They’re swollen, inflamed, and so sore that it’s hard for her to unscrew the cap off a water bottle, let alone do her job as an electrician.
She finally got in to see a specialist. She’s been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis: an ongoing painful disorder.
I hate this and want to fix it.
The other day, as I rode my bike, I was pondering the nature of pain.
I was riding up a hill and challenging myself by peddling in a higher gear than normal. My breath was coming in gasps, my heart was thudding out of my chest, and my thighs ached.
I wanted it to hurt, because I wanted to understand more about pain. Maybe if I understood about my own pain, I could help Susie with hers.
But then I realized that I was tolerating the pain in my body and continuing to push myself because I knew my pain was going to end as soon as I got to the top of the hill and got my breath back.
I called Susie later that day and told her about my realization that my tolerance of pain was based on the idea that it was going to stop. But what about her pain that may or may not end?
“I think ongoing pain is similar to when elite athletes train for an endurance sport—like a triathlon,” she said. “It depends on how much suffering you’re willing to put up with that day. Some days you can run a marathon and other days you can only tolerate five miles.
“But you keep training anyway.”
Why there are no bullet points
By this point, you might be wondering when I’m going to get to the good stuff. When am I going to give you the magic bullet points that will make life’s painful episodes better?
And here’s why: I receive emails from readers who tell me about their pain and their extremely difficult circumstances that break my heart to hear about.
Bullet points aren’t going to help.
Okay, maybe they will help a little.
But what I want you to know, what we all need to know and understand, is that sometimes life cold-cocks you in the heart.
And it hurts. It just fucking hurts.
And you make your way through it however you make your way through it.
Maybe it’s by sobbing on your hands and knees until you can’t sob anymore.
Maybe it’s by calling your friend at three o’clock in the morning.
Maybe it’s by tolerating as much as you can each day.
Maybe it’s by shouting and raging at God.
Somehow, miraculously, while you’re doing these things, time passes.
And one day, you look back with wonder and say, “I made it.”
I’m interested in what you think. Please leave a comment below.