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Some Thoughts on the Function of Pain


I recently read an article about a rare condition in which a person does not feel pain. At first I thought that sounded like a great problem to have, and then as I read on I was struck by how very useful pain is in our lives. Consider what would happen to a child near an open flame if s/he could not feel pain. Although perhaps a strange thing to say, I believe that pain helps to keep us safe. Pain tells us when something is not right. It is a means by which our body communicates with us.

Bereaved people are familiar with pain; it is an unwelcome but often constant companion in the dark journey through grief. I know it is tempting to want to make the pain of grief disappear, but consider instead what that pain is communicating to you and how it can help you through your unique grief process.

In my experience, grieving people too often fight their pain and forge ahead as if their hearts were not shattered. Consider what would happen if one's leg was broken, but that person ignored it and went about his/her normal duties. We all know that successful healing would not take place in that situation, and that in fact, the pain would likely only increase.

FlowersIn the same way, I do not believe it is useful to ignore the pain of grief. That pain is communicating something important, and I believe we need to listen. In my experience, the pain of grief is sometimes communicating that we are moving much too fast. We are trying too hard to resume "normal" life and "normal" activities without giving ourselves enough time to let the pieces of our hearts mend back together. If we will listen, I believe the pain of grief communicates that we are not paying enough attention to the devastating rip in the fabric of our life.

That said, I acknowledge that grief is always painful. It is simply not possible to lose someone we love without pain. How then, do we know when the pain requires our attention? I am not sure there is just one answer to that question, but I would like to share my thoughts with you.

In the beginning of grief, the pain is raw and acute. In fact, it is so bad that we naturally numb ourselves to it and operate on some sort of emotional autopilot. This numbness does wear off and the pain is intense, leveling and much too real. I believe this pain requires our attention. This pain tells us to slow down, to limit our activities, and to reduce our expectations of ourselves. This pain reminds us that the time has arrived to tend to ourselves, and not spend our time and energy on anything unnecessary. This is the time to say "no" to all but the most critical requests from others, and to guard our time and energy because it is needed for grief. It is also an excellent time to reach out to others for help.

As time goes on, the pain of grief does soften. I believe that this softening is information that we are better able to function in our usual roles. It does not, however, mean that we should expect to feel "normal" or be able to do all the same things we used to do because the pain of grief is only eased, not erased. That remaining pain tells us that we still need time and energy for our grief work, but that there is now more time and energy available for other things. A danger at this time is having unrealistic expectations of ourselves; this is still a tender time and we need to protect our healing heart.

At some point we find that the memories of our loved one no longer invoke acute pain, but more often bring smiles as we remember the wonderful things about that person and the time we shared together. The pain of grief never really disappears, but it tends to become more of an empty place in our hearts or a dull ache. This is the time when we are typically able to resume a full life, having taken the time necessary to move past the acute pain of grief.

There is never a time when we "get over" the death of a significant person in our lives, but we can move through grief and create a "new normal." I do believe that successful "healing" after the death of a loved one requires attention to the pain of grief, and all that it communicates to us about our unique process of grief. Our pain is a sort of navigational tool, and ignoring it slows down our progress and can take us off course.

I do not wish the pain of grief on anyone, but neither do I wish it completely away because it stands in tribute to the one who is loved and was lost. In addition, the pain is a guide through grief and therefore helps us in the dark journey. Intense pain does not have to be borne alone, however, and I invite you to take advantage of the bereavement resources in your community for assistance in handling the pain of grief.

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