I introduced this idea in my post about my birth stories, but wanted to develop it further.
If you’re into birth stories then give it a read, but if you would like to be spared all of the TMI here’s the pertinent part of the story in a nutshell.
With my second pregnancy I developed symphysis pubis dysfunction at 10 weeks. Which basically meant that I was in debilitating pain for the last 30 weeks (plus the 2 days overdue) of my pregnancy. It was horrible and my doctor didn’t care/ wouldn’t listen.
The pain was sometimes mild and manageable but frequently jumped to excruciating, by the end it was mostly always excruciating. But no matter what, it was constant.
I had a doctor’s appointment on my due date, which was a Monday and my doctor agreed to set an induction date. He initially said Wednesday then changed his mind and suggested Friday. I piped in, “Or Wednesday!” “No, Friday will be better schedule wise.” “Or we could do Wednesday.” “Why Wednesday, what’s two more days?”
Anyone who would suggest that it’s just two more days has clearly never experienced chronic debilitating pain. I mean he might as well have said, “What’s two more days in Hell?” It’s 4 MORE days in Hell, is what it is, because Wednesday is 2 more days.
He settled on Friday, I felt powerless to argue, so that was the plan. That’s not what ended up happening, but that starts getting way off topic. She did end up coming on her own on Wednesday.
The thought of having to be in pain longer caused me to reflect deeply on a favorite passage of scripture. This comes from the Doctrine and Covenants and is a revelation given to Joseph Smith in which Christ explains and details His life and mission. He explains His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to being crucified:
“Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.”
That phrase, “to tremble because of pain” has always struck me, but now it was striking with more meaning. I felt like my pain was being disregarded, that I was being treated as weak or foolish for expressing that I was in pain, and yet the Savior, even God, TREMBLED because of pain. I by no means want to compare my pain to what He must have gone through in that time, and yet, it was validating to realize that He was admitting to trembling in pain. I realized on a very personal level that He understood what I was going through which made me feel closer to Him.
The biggest thing it did was make me thing about how we, “mere mortals,” react to pain in ourselves and to others.
No one will get through this life without experiencing some form of debilitating pain, whether it be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, or really any combination of the above, because really they are all connected. These painful trials can become a stepping stone that allows us to draw closer to our Savior making them sacred experiences. But what about when you are in the middle of it, or someone around you is in the middle of it, too often we try to just make it go away or make it seem less awful than it is, I feel that this can take away from the sacred nature of pain, and unfortunately can make the situation harder in the moment.
I want to take a look at some of the mistakes we make when dealing with pain both our own and others. Like I’ve said in other posts, if you realize that this is something you have done to me or others, know that I am not upset, or holding a grudge. I know that people are for the most part well meaning. My hope is that we can learn together from these mistakes so that we can be more helpful to others in the future.
What not to do:
Putting things in perspective
Having an Eternal perspective is so important when dealing with trials. Knowing that God is there and on your side and that “all these things shall give thee experience and work for thy good,” can be the only thing that keeps you going sometimes. I feel like developing an Eternal perspective is something that you should be working on constantly, especially during the “down time” when you aren’t in the middle of a crisis so it’s there to get you through the crisis. When the crisis comes, the Eternal perspective becomes a very personal relationship with God through mighty prayer and faith.
Sometimes people say things, well meaning of course, to try and spin the Eternal perspective, or put things in perspective during the crisis. Things like, “Well it could always be worse….you could have….” or “Well at least you have….”
Yeah, because when you’re in pain you definitely want to think about how things could be worse, that’s a pretty hopeful place to go.
I really can’t picture anyone saying to Christ in the Garden, it could always be worse, I mean you could have gotten YOUR ear cut off, or your disciples could have gone home to sleep instead of falling asleep in an uncomfortable garden. You wouldn’t say that to Him. And the only person I can see coming up with a “Well at least…” statement is Satan. “Well at least you HAVE body.”
Those kinds of statements invalidate the experience. And OF COURSE it could be worse, and people have gone through harder things. I mean ultimately Christ experienced it ALL. But I can’t for a moment picture Him coming and saying it could be worse, or at least you didn’t have to go through what he went through. No. He validates our pain because He experienced it. He sends the Comforter to help us through.
I feel like in Mormon culture we don’t want to let things be bad. And maybe that’s because we believe that ultimately we will be led to pure joy. Or we have this idea that in order to be Christ-like we can’t admit to the struggle because He was perfect and somehow we think that being perfect means not having human emotions, reactions, or struggles. And yet, he said, “Father if thou be willing, remove this cup from me.”
Was he showing a lack of Eternal perspective in that moment? Was it sinful to show weakness? No, but He was expressing His emotions and His pain freely to His Father. Sometimes things are just hard, really hard and awful, and the cup can’t just be removed. He had to experience it in order to fulfill His most sacred responsibility. Likewise we have to allow ourselves and others to experience pain in order to fulfill our sacred potential and join the fellowship of Christ. To try and remove it, or make seem not as bad would hold us back from being able to “overcome all things,” which is a characteristic of those who will inherit the Celestial Kingdom.
Find the deeper meaning or give an explanation
“He’s in a better place.”
“God must have needed her more on the other side.”
“Think of all the lives he’s touching.”
“If it’s God’s will….”
“I’m sure it will all be ok”
These platitudes, plain and simple, are not helpful.
As individuals deal with pain, grief, and loss and turn towards God, sometimes they receive answers that give meaning to what they have experienced. Sometimes the personal revelation they receive sounds like some of the lines I wrote above. HOWEVER, those answers are deeply personal, need to come from God, and need to come when they are ready to receive it. While it may turn out to be true, to try and offer meaning or give an explanation is an attempt to receive personal revelation for the other person.
Also, don’t give assurances that it will be ok. Again, that’s as if you have received personal revelation for someone else’s experience. When I was 16 my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. For the 2 weeks between diagnosis and hysterectomy I lived with constant weight and fear of the unknown. When I told people they frequently said to me, “It’s alright, your mom’s going to be fine,” “Everything is going to be ok!” It was really frustrating because I didn’t know if everything was going to be ok, I hadn’t received that answer from God. The prognosis was good, but there was still the lingering fear of what could come, not to mention that even if they could get everything out with the surgery and no follow up needed, my mom was still undergoing major surgery and would be healing for several weeks. (For the record, everything did turn out ok. In fact, after the surgery they came back and said it wasn’t actually cancer, just cysts, and now 15 years down the road there have been no continuing concerns.)
When baptized in the LDS faith we covenant to bear one another’s burdens, mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. Our job is to bear, mourn, and comfort, not to explain or reveal meaning, that is God’s job.
Don’t compare your pain. Don’t compare anything for the matter, but really, don’t compare your pain and your trials.
As a missionary I started out with a chip on my shoulder. I had myself convinced that I had sacrificed more than most of the other missionaries, so I really had a reason to struggle and have down days. I did sacrifice a lot to be there, and I certainly had my fair share of literal blood, sweat, and tears. But one day I was humbled with the seemingly obvious realization that at some point everyone would go through the hardest thing they have ever gone through. That would be different for everyone and tailor made for them to grow and develop as needed. I realized that I needed to allow other people to struggle, because while they weren’t going through the same thing I was, what they were going through was hard.
I had to learn this same concept but flipped when I went through my second pregnancy. I was surrounded by people who were going through very very difficult trials. A few friends experienced infant loss while I was pregnant, another friend was struggling with infertility (prayers for her recently implanted baby!). And then there was me, carrying a healthy baby, and yet struggling so much. Let me be clear that none of them did or said anything to make me feel guilty, I placed the burden of guilt on myself.
How dare I feel depressed when there were so many people around me going through something much harder. Never would I ever wish to trade places with them. So I tried to tell myself that I should just suck it up, and I should be so happy. And of course I WAS happy to be carrying a healthy baby, that wasn’t what I was depressed about, but that’s what makes it depression. I wasn’t really sad about anything, I was sad about EVERYTHING, and being in constant physical pain made it so much worse.
I finally realized, that yes, while other people were going through things that were harder than what I was experiencing, that didn’t mean that what I was going through wasn’t hard. While I found joy in the hope that I would have a healthy and happy baby at the end (which isn’t quite how it went what with the NICU stay and all, but that’s a different story), it didn’t mean that I had to pretend to be enjoying my present circumstance. I needed to validate my own pain and stop comparing it to others.
Another comparison we need to avoid is an attempt at an empathetic comparison.
A dear friend of mine lost her Father to a very long battle with cancer when she was only 19 years old. I was her visiting teacher at the time and I’m sure I said some well meaning, but stupid things to her, but did my best to comfort while validating her pain. At one point I started to say to her, “I know how you feel.” Then corrected myself, and said, “Actually, I have no idea how you feel.” She thanked me for saying that and told me that she found it a little frustrating when people said, “I know how you feel.” And then a lot of them would follow it up with something like, “My grandpa died.” Not to take away from the pain and sadness of losing a grandparent, but losing your parent especially at such a young age, is a very different experience.
On the flip side of that, the “I could never do that” response is another form of comparison. Again it’s well meaning, and perhaps trying to highlight a strength that you see in the person. Unfortunately it can feel like a wall being put up that makes them different. The implications of the phrase, while in most cases not meant to be malicious can hurt the person who is doing their best to get through something difficult. Often people experiencing loss (especially in extreme cases such as the loss of a child or untimely death of a spouse) feel guilt when they realize that their life is moving forward, especially in the moments when they realize they “forgot to miss them” or “forgot to be sad.” Somehow they do have to continue with their life without letting loss consume them. Comments like, “I could never do that” or “I would just fall apart” can increase that feeling of guilt, as if moving forward means that they didn’t love the person enough. That’s of course not the case, but in the middle of loss our brains are not exactly known for being entirely logical and rational.
An empathetic response is wonderful, however an attempt at an empathetic comparison may leave the person experiencing the trial actually feeling less understood and less validated in their pain which can unfortunately end up causing more pain.
What TO do:
I feel like this painting really illustrates it perfectly. Allow people to go through the experience, to grieve, to cry, to express themselves, and mostly just be there holding them, listening, and loving.
The angel isn’t saying to Him, “It’s gonna be ok.” Because she knows it’s not, His trial and pain were going to continue and get worse. I picture her simply saying, “I’m here, I love you, your Father loves you, I’m sorry you have to go through this,” and then crying along with Him.
In my experience, and from what I’ve observed with other people’s experiences is that in the middle of the trial they need people to just be there, to allow them to express the reality of their pain, to let them ugly cry when needed, and to just know that you are a safe person to vent to.
Rather than trying to give a positive spin or a comparison say things like:
- I’m so sorry this is happening
- That sounds so hard
- I can only imagine
Don’t just tell them that God loves them, SHOW them by being an extension of His love. Let them know that you will be there and help with whatever they need, give them ideas of what that means. Tell them if they need to talk about it then your ears are open, if they need a distraction to get their mind off of it then you would love to get out of the house with them and not talk about it. Offer specific service- can I bring a meal, do some laundry, mow your lawn, watch kids, donate to a fund, etc.
I feel like this quote from Spencer W. Kimball really sums this up:
“God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs… So often, our acts of service consist of simple encouragement or of giving mundane help with mundane tasks, but what glorious consequences can flow from mundane acts and from small but deliberate deeds!”
Pray, and let them know you’re praying, but be aware that it can seem trite when someone says they are praying but doesn’t follow up with any action or dismisses what the hurting person is saying.
Send notes and text messages to let them know that they are on your mind.
Most of all just love and be loving.
To Those Experiencing Pain and Trials
I’m sorry, I hope you are able to find comfort.
Please keep in mind that people are trying to be nice so when they do make one of the mistakes from above, forgive them. When appropriate you may want to find ways to calmly explain what types of responses are helpful vs. hurtful.
Let people serve you! While on my mission, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland did a mission conference for us and something that he said has really stuck with me. He explained that while on our missions we had a very specific and important focus and we ought not to let Terrestrial, or worldly, cares get in the way of our higher calling. That’s why they encourage members to feed missionaries, and ask missionaries to have simple wardrobes etc. so we don’t have to use too much of our precious time taking care of those earthly needs. I feel like this applies to us when we are experiencing significant trials as well. When in the middle of the trial you have much more pressing needs to take care of so let people around you take care of your Terrestrial needs as much as they can.
Most of all take care of your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. Surround yourself with positive influences and don’t be afraid to reach out to trusted people.
And if you do need some good perspective, remember that this too shall pass. It might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.