Somewhere along the trajectory of my youth I picked up the habit of telling myself stories … except I didn’t know I was doing so. I would think, “I’ll never find love,” after I had been rejected by a boy and think that that as somehow a true thought. Or in my 20s, in the midst of upheaval at work, I’d go to sleep at night believing that no one else in my generation felt this much worry, or carried this much self-doubt. I had a tale for everything and for the most part those tales were profoundly negative and limiting. Along the pathway of my youth I had come to believe beliefs, myths really, about what should be true and had a difficult time seeing that my life as it existed had its own truth, and these myths I carried in my mind were falsehoods disguised as fact.
In the territory of loss, stories abound about how we should behave and what we ought to feel. A former student called me asking for information about a resilience seminar because she found herself profoundly affected by the loss of her parents, three years after their deaths. In her mind, this was far too long to grieve, and the story she had begun to tell herself was that she was wrong, there was a time frame to grief and she had far overrun its proper course.
Another patient of mine, a woman with Stage II breast cancer, asked for a private consultation because she felt like she didn’t belong in the cancer support group world. In her words, “My cancer is curable. How can I possibly whine about my fears or how I can’t sleep at night if I’m next to someone with a much harder diagnosis? I should feel better about this, but I don’t, so I just don’t go.” The myth she had stepped into was the myth that there is a hierarchy of pain and that you are only allowed to feel what you feel if you are in the top 10 worst diagnoses or have had the top five worst losses. Parents who have lost one child will feel like they shouldn’t complain in the presence of someone who has lost more than one. Teens with chronic illness feel ashamed of their anxieties when they meet a teen with a life-threatening diagnosis. The story we tell ourselves is that other people’s pain trumps ours, so therefore we need to shut down what we feel and carry on as if nothing has really happened and our suffering is really quite small.
This is one perspective I wish we could all live into: Pain is pain is pain. How it comes to us is not nearly as important as how it impacts us and what we choose to do with the opportunity to wrestle with its effects. We could use the pain of any loss, such as that of a beloved pet, to open our hearts and connect us to the reality of suffering everywhere, or we can dishonor our experience, judge it and ourselves, and put a wall around our hearts and lock others out and ourselves in.
And in terms of timing … well, grief has its own timeframe … and this is what I have come to understand: There is no timeframe. Grief rises, falls, dissipates, and then pins us once more like iron under a blacksmith’s hammer. There is little predictability to the floods of sorrow, even years after a loss. The sound of summer baseball, almost 10 years after my brother’s death, can still send me to my knees with the memory of hours playing whiffle ball with the neighbors on our corner lot in upstate New York. There is no magic time in which grief finally disappears. Better to consider grief as a road, sometimes dense, dark, harsh, like through a wood, sometimes one of quicksand and swamp, and sometimes, a narrow trail, a rocky climb on the edge of a cliff that one can navigate only one small careful step at a time. And sometimes too, the journey of grieving can seem like the walk along the rim of the ocean, soft sand underneath, the pull of forces strong yet beautiful near us, and the sun shining anyway. There is no formula and there is no one experience of the road. Our anguish will exist as its own on its own terms.
A third knowing I wish for each of us: It is not our fault. We become caught in magical thinking that we could have rewritten the storyline and prevented life from having its way with us. And once in a while, perhaps, this is true … and yet more often than not, disease is multifactorial, tragedy is unpreventable, and accidents do happen. Moreover, blame is distracting and unhelpful. We come by our vulnerabilities and our fragile mortality honestly. There is no perfect here on the planet and none of us is god-like in our ability to know in advance what will result from the millions of micro choices we make each day.
I’ll say that again. There is no perfect here on this planet.
Life will have its way with us. Rather than spend time in a story of blame and shame, perhaps we can free ourselves a bit to consider this tale: We have little control. The control we do have sometimes isn’t enough. As we learn to forgive ourselves for not being able to protect everyone we love in every way, including ourselves, we become a light that can offer that learning to others when they are struck. In this way, our suffering begins to have a meaning that is larger than our particular experience. In this way, we help others move out of the prison of myths that truly are not true, that only serve to keep us cold and small, and begin to create a story that offers connection and warmth.
Dr. Maria Sirois is a master teacher, facilitator, and author. She is devoted to the science of well-being and the art of crafting a life and work that embodies health, passion, and success. As a positive psychologist (PsyD) and international consultant, she focuses on the resilience of the human spirit, particularly when under chronic stress, during significant transitions, and/or feeling the shock of wholesale change. Known for her wisdom, authenticity, and rampant humor, Maria brings a depth of experience in personal and leadership development for corporate and nonprofit professionals, as well as community members and those who serve in the health and wellness arenas. For those who seek personal transformation and an increase in meaning, happiness, and health, she brings a wealth of perspective and research from decades of study in the mind/body medicine and resilience disciplines. Her first entree into the territory of wellness was as a volunteer at the then-groundbreaking Benson-Henry Mind/Body Institute in Boston, where she learned to offer mindfulness practice and stress-reduction techniques to those suffering from chronic and acute pain. Her work today integrates this perspective with the tenets of wholeness found in positive psychology. With world thought leader Tal Ben-Shahar and WBI CEO and cofounder Megan McDonough, Maria co-leads a year-long certificate program for executives, educators, entrepreneurs, counselors, and the general public. In addition, Maria is the author of two books, A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (And Other Dark, Difficult Times) and Every Day Counts (Lessons in Love, Faith and Resilience from Children Facing Illness). For more about her work, visit mariasirois.com.