The only way to heal from the pain of losses suffered is to go through the pain. There’s no way around it. We can stuff it. We can dodge it. But eventually, we will have to face it.
From our earliest days of life, we humans avoid pain. We pull our inquisitive fingers away from the hot stove. We avoid fights with the schoolyard bully. We wear seatbelts, kneepads, and helmets. We don’t run with scissors. We quickly learn that some pain is avoidable, and we conveniently conclude that all pain is (or should be) avoidable.
Unfortunatley, our conclusion is false. When the winds of adversity wreak havoc on our lives, loss and pain will result. What do we do when the pain and loss mounts up? Being the pain-avoiders that we are, we sometimes refuse to deal with it; we try to run away. Some of our favorite strategies are to get busy, get around it, or get numb. Consider for a moment how these strategies play out in the aftermath of suffering.
After her mother’s death, Jan Dravecky quickly shifted into high gear. She arranged the service, cared for the family, and tried to help her father adjust to widowhood. Three weeks after the service, Jan broke down and cried, but her sorrow was short-lived. Her father quickly reminded her that her mother always wanted her to be happy. “I knew he was right,” Jan admits. “Mother always managed to steer me around any sadness, so I stuffed the pain back down. I did what a lot of people do: I go busy.”
Following the amputation of his arm, Dave Dravecky “got busy” too. Instead of focusing on his own loss, he spent five days walking from room to room in the cancer ward encouraging other patients. On the surface he was serving others, but “deep down inside of me there were issues I simply didn’t want to face.” It wasn’t a conscious deception, but Dave now realizes that when he was involved in others people’s lives, it was easier to set aside his own struggles.
Get Around It
Denial is a common coping mechanism by which we behave, think, or feel as if some reality about us simply isn’t true. Denial takes an eraser to our loss so we can avoid its impact on our lives. Denial can serve a positive purpose in the early days of a devastating loss because it enables us to begin facing our loss in bite-size chunks rather than as an overwhelming whole. The problem is, it’s tempting to stay in denial.
Cancer survivor and psychologist Dr. Ari Shreffler knew the truth about denial from a professional perspective, but when the application turned personal, she struggled just like anyone else. Dr. Shreffler was married to a phenomenal, compassionate, Christian psychologist. Unfortunately, the husband of one of his patients became enraged when the doctor encouraged his patient to leave the couple’s drug-addicted lifestyle. Without warning, the deranged man barged into the Shreffler home. He shot and killed Ari’s husband and their two sons. Then he shot Ari seven times and left her for dead. As a mental health professional, Dr. Shreffler knew she needed to face the devastating loss of her family, yet it took eight and a half years to deal with the loss. “Even with all the counseling experience I had and all the degrees on my wall, I buried my pain.”
Dr. Shreffler had help burying her pain. The deadly assault on her family left her without a bladder and without the use of her legs. The unrelenting pain of her wounds required “mega doses of morphine” for the first eight years after the shooting. The medication masked her physical pain, but it also masked her emotional pain.
Masking pain is one way we avoid dealing with our losses. While it may work initially, masking our pain creates more problems in the long run. Many people get trapped in various types of addiction disease because we “self-medicate,” meaning we consume as much of our chosen numbing agent (drugs, alcohol, food, work, etc.) as we need to numb ourselves to the presence of our pain. That is one reason alcoholism and drug dependence are such widespread health problems.
Our instinctive tendency to avoid pain has serious long-term consequences if we choose to continue avoiding it rather than dealing with its source. Psychologist John Townsend, in his book Hiding from Love, cautions that when we run from our pain, “what needs attention or repair in our hearts goes neglected. And what is broken gets more broken over time.” When we ran, when we bury our pain, we begin a downward spiral – from initial pain to woundedness, to retreat, isolation, depression, spiritual apathy, and much greater pain.
Gerald Sittser, who lost his mother, wife, and daughter in a tragic car accident, was so overcome by anguish and emptiness that he wanted to run and keep running. But in his book, A Grace Disguised, he describes how he was compelled to face his losses: “Since I knew that the darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I decided…to walk into the darkness rather than try to outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey wherever it would lead, and to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it.”
That is a truth recent widow Sally DeRue is discovering day by day. “Some days the loss is totally overwhelming. I have to just go with it. If I feel like crying, I cry. If I feel like going to sleep, I sleep. From my own knowledge and from reading books on griefs and loss, I know that the worst thing a person can do is to deny those feelings. They don’t feel good, but the sooner you acknowledge the pain, the sooner you get over it. When you acknowledge it, the pain doesn’t last as long. When you stuff it, it lasts longer.”
Facing the pain of loss is never easy. If it were easy, we wouldn’t run. The loving support of family, friends, and often pastors and counselors can help us face overwhelming pain. But more important, we need a guide, an escort, who will never leave us alone in the darkness of our loss. That guide is Jesus. Described in Scripture as “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering,” He has walked through darkness in human form. He promises to never leave us no matter how deep the darkness, no matter how overwhelming our pain. Gerald Sittser, Like many others who seek Him as they journey into the darkness, discovered that He is true to His promise. “Darkness,” he writes, “had invaded my soul. But then again, so had light.”
When you acknowledge it, the pain doesn’t last as long. When you stuff it, it lasts longer.