The other evening a client shared in session that she recently lost her 21-year-old-daughter due to an unfortunate accident. She didn’t know that I also experienced a profound loss just last month with the passing of my nephew just a day shy of his 16th birthday also due to a tragic accident.
Listening to her tell her story naturally evoked an intense sense of hopelessness and grief due to her loss and the one I recently experienced. My reaction necessitated me sharing my experience with her. I made a clinical judgment that the best thing I can do in that moment for her was to model humanism and authenticity. I validated our mutual state of disbelief, sadness, and inability to comprehend such senseless tragedies.
She appreciated me sharing my story with her and expressed, “I sometimes forget that you’re human too.” She felt comforted that in the moment I shared and showed my vulnerability and could cry for the both of us without apologizing for my reaction or holding it back from either of us.
Connecting through our mutual suffering provided a holding environment and reinforced that she can just be, and however she showed up with me would be accepted, welcomed, and supported. She shared her array of human feelings ranging from sadness, disappointment, anger, fear, guilt, and shame.
When she left, I gave myself the time to sob and process my array of feelings. I continue to process and feel deep compassion for her, myself, and all the others who are painfully suffering through these unimaginable tragedies.
In the midst of our suffering, being part of a community or group typically helps to normalize and validate our thoughts and feelings and additionally offers meaningful nurturance and support.
Groups like The Compassionate Friends for parents who lost children, or Alcoholics Anonymous, a fellowship of individuals who gather to be sources of support for others who are recovering from alcoholism, and Gilda’s Club, an organization which offers groups to ensure that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action and sustained by community, are examples of communities where people congregate, connect, support, and heal together.
When we are with others where there is commonality, we can become emotionally vulnerable and show our true selves with less perceived risk that we’ll be judged because of our thoughts, feeling, and reactions. We can be transparent with our imperfections and face and lean into our discomfort. As Kristin Neff brilliantly states, “What we resist, persists” and “what we can feel, we can heal.” We give ourselves the opportunity to mindfully heal.
There’s also a need to integrate self-compassion throughout the process of healing. Internally working on ourselves gives us the strength to work through the adversity and pain. One would mindfully ask, “What am I experiencing right now?” and “How am I thinking and feeling about it?” They would additionally compassionately ask, “What do I need right now?” and “How will I be kind to myself when I suffer.”
There is often no choice but to accept that things are and will continue to be painful. If we can be kind to ourselves in the midst of suffering, rather than avoiding, distracting, warding off, or beating ourselves up because of the suffering, then we can be with our anguish and sorrow with greater ease.
As Neff suggests, we tend to fight ourselves (self-criticism), we flee from others (isolation), or we freeze (rumination). When we practice self-compassion, we are deactivating the threat-defense system and activating the care system. Oxytocin and endorphins are released, which helps reduce stress and increase feelings of safety and security.
Pain in life—loss, worry, heartbreak, hardship—is inevitable, but when we resist the pain, it usually just makes the pain more intense. It’s this add-on pain that can be equated with suffering. We suffer not only because it’s painful in the moment, but because we bang our head against the wall of reality—getting frustrated because we think things should be other than they are.
To help you connect with your self-compassion, consider writing one of these three letters:
- Think of an imaginary friend who is unconditionally wise, loving, and compassionate and write a letter to yourself from the perspective of your friend.
- Write a letter as if you were talking to a dearly beloved friend who was struggling with the same concerns as you.
- Write a letter from the compassionate part of yourself to the part of yourself that is struggling.
After writing the letter, you can put it down for a while and then read it later, letting the words soothe and comfort you when you need it most.
I continue to mourn the loss of these two wonderful souls who brought so much joy and laughter to those they came in contact with. To love is to also accept loss. The pain just highlights and is a testament to the deep care and connection everyone had for them and how truly valued they were.