Pain comes out the way it goes in – in relationship

Finding myself in the face of a great loss, I need to focus on the task of grieving. Actually, I don’t have much attention for anything else at the moment. Grief has a cruel grip on my heart and much of the time, all I can do is get through each moment. There are things I need to get on with but I can’t do them while I feel like this. I need to make grieving my only priority until I have done enough of it that I can start thinking about other things. At risk of oversimplifying this process, I am going to update my own guide to grieving. Cos I need it now.

I have three things in mind. The first is to remind myself that pain comes out the same way it goes in: in relationship. Next, I have to work on detaching the strands of connection to what I have lost. Thirdly, the one I am most afraid of: going right into the pain, in order to get through it. All three of these I addressed twelve years ago when I was grieving Jane. I think I can describe them more succinctly now. And my need to apply them is more urgent. I really want my life back. Again, I know I risk trivialising this when I say I want to do some deliberate, intense grieving and make some headway with this. I can not get the term “power-grieving” out of my head so I’ll use it here to mock myself.

Feel and express with someone empathising

You get hurt when you have a strong relationship with someone and they depart, demand from or attack you. The more attached you are, and the more intense the unloving (let’s say adapted) response you receive, the more it hurts. Unconsciously, a message gets stored inside us that says “strong relationship means bad things coming in”. Right now, this is true for me in my strongest relationship, as I have just lost it. No more love coming in from that one. As it was a strong relationship, the impact on me is strong. A lot of pain.

The opposite experience heals this. A strong relationship with good things – like love – coming in. I am greatly blessed with many people in my life who love me dearly. Many of these are highly able to listen while I feel and express and to respond with love. They let me know they heard me, that they see the pain I am feeling. They do not try to give me advice, or bring themselves into the moment. They offer empathy. You feel deeply and express yourself while the two of you stay in relationship. Feel and connect. That’s what does it.

So as not to be simplistic, some comments

I think the way this works is there is something like a finite quantity of tears. The reason they are in there is that life hurts. Other people are imperfect, muddling along the best they can like me and sometimes, also like me, stuffing or just saying no for good reasons. The tears go in, they gotta come out. The more you let out, the less you have to lug around. This is a the basic idea of all the cathartic therapies.

It is not just the expression, tho – it’s gotta be in relationship. In Psychodrama we have the idea of “social atom repair” where people in the here and now respond in ways that were not present in the original situation. This doesn’t just release the tears, it also kind of installs these new responses inside you so you can supply them for yourself. You don’t have to do it all on spectacular display the way I enjoy doing. You can figure your way to working through some of the loss on your own (I do lots of that, too). The critical thing tho is not expecting yourself to magic that out of nowhere. We learn from experience (vis the bad ones) so it is only by experiencing love from others that we can learn to offer love to ourselves.

Of course, not everyone in your world is fantastic at empathy. It isn’t that easy, especially sustained. And that doesn’t matter. Even small moments of someone being a bit empathic, especially if that is a bit new to them are gold. Sometimes it takes a little extra attention to notice and appreciate them.

Some folks with an individualist view on things may disagree with me. Get on with your mindfulness, self-discipline and letting go and you’ll make it. I reckon we are more social than that. At the very least my view on this is more relational.

Some may say this only works for extroverts. But last I heard there is nothing about introverts preferring isolation. And I really am not coming up with this stuff by myself. It’s been a while that humans have been processing loss together in funerals, memorial services and other rituals.

Finally, as I said in my original post on this, I still believe that time doesn’t heal. It’s just that it takes time to do the work that does heal. Denial, that good friend in the height of a crisis, can also invite us to avoid facing the pain. Pain is no fun. And love is not always on tap. So we can only do this process in episodes.