Someone recently wrote a vivid description of how she anticipated a social gathering going.  She lost her husband about a year and a half ago.  The pain is still almost overwhelming.  She is anticipating going to the social gathering and pretending to be fine.  She would act the part, bantering with the others there, appreciating what each other is wearing.  All the while she would be feeling the pain of that loss, trying not to reveal it. 

Why pretend?  Well, who would be interested in hearing her whine about it?  She should be over it, right?  It has been long enough to stop grieving, let go of the pain and enjoy life again?  If she didn’t pretend, if she let it all come out in that public setting, she would soon become a social pariah.

First of all, there is an absolute lie out there that anyone who has lost a spouse or a child knows is a lie.  The lie is that after a year, a person ought to be over the loss, be done grieving and be able to get on with life no longer disabled by the pain of that loss.  Sometimes acquaintances begin to get impatient with a person’s grieving just months after the loss. 

It just doesn’t work that way!  Grieving is so complex as not to allow any template defining its time frame and boundaries.  No one can decide for someone else how to grieve or how long to grieve.  Yes, grieving can turn into a pathology.  But sometimes one person’s pathology is another’s path to acceptance and good health.  Most of those who allowed me into their lives at a time of deep pain over a loss have needed reassurance more than diagnosis.  They needed to be reassured that it is all right for them to feel the pain, to be okay and then relapse, to cry too much or too little in the judgment of friends and acquaintances.  They needed to be allowed to keep their defensive denial in place as long as they needed it until they were ready to let the full force of the loss finally hit them. 

Those who had gone through a painful loss, needed a place to talk it through, a place where they had permission to go over the same territory over and over again until the intensity began to diminish.   They needed a place where there was no need to pretend. 

What became clear to me in four decades of ministry to people in pain is that while each is convinced that he/she is surrounded with people who are doing fine, while he/she is not, he/she is surrounded with others who are doing the very same thing.  When we are in pain, we look at others who appear to be normal, happy, well-adjusted, but are pretending just as we are. 

Those of us who are doing full time caregiving, whose world is filled with never ending responsibility for someone else’s well-being can decide that no one out there understands.  We can begin to isolate ourselves and then conclude that no one cares about us.  If they cared they would pay more attention to us.  The truth is, we are surrounded by others who are looking at us longing for a bit of our attention, a word of interest in their situation, maybe thinking we would not understand since we are normal, happy and well-adjusted.

When I looked out over the congregation in a worship service, it often struck me that people with similar problems might be sitting near one another with absolutely no clue that they were both in almost the same situation. 

The way to find the strength to deal with our own pain, is to turn away from it long enough to see someone else’s struggle and try to make a difference.  Allowing others to shed their pretenses with us, not only helps them find the strength to deal with their pain but puts our pain in perspective and allows the possibility of our pain becoming more bearable.  

When we open ourselves to see and hear the stories of other people’s struggles, we find that we are not alone, there are others who understand.  Not only that, we are challenged to live meaningfully with our problems.  Seeing and hearing other people tell us their stories takes from us our excuses for allowing the problem to rule our lives and interfere with finding joy and meaning in life. 

No we are not okay.  We are in pain.  We have suffered a loss.  We are just putting on a front.  No one else understands or cares.  They are all okay.  Sorry — not true!  Most of us have a load of pain to carry.  Most of us are not at all okay.  Maybe it is time to stop pretending we are the only ones hurting. Maybe it is time to actually pay attention to someone else, listen to them without explaining why our suffering is greater than theirs.  Maybe by removing the pretense we can support one another, draw strength from one another and steal from our pain the power to separate and isolate and rule our lives. 

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