“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something” – the immortal words of the dread pirate Roberts to Princess Buttercup in the cult 1987 movie ‘The Princess Bride’
While quoted in a daft (but wonderful!) slapstick movie, the truth of those words have resonated with me many times over the past few years. They resonated when I first got my heart truly broken. When I didn’t get picked for the school sports team (in fairness I’ve never been the ‘outdoorsy’ type!). When I felt the increasing sting of loneliness and years of unrealised hopes as I watched others achieve my heart’s desire in their own lives. When I found myself immersed in an emotionally abusive romantic relationship with a man who was a respected Christian leader. They rang true when I was routinely screamed at, gossiped about, belittled and eventually bullied out off a job I had moved my whole life across the sea for. They rang true when I was raped and felt such deep shame I hugged the searing pain to myself and told no one what had happened for almost three years.
If we sat down together to talk about the pain we have each experienced in our lives, I know we would tell each other many stories like this. Stories of loss and pain and hurts that we have gone through. These might be life events like the death of a loved one, redundancy or a long held dream dying. Or they could be hurts we only feel on a small scale at the time but add up to ‘death by a thousand paper cuts’ – a slow, lingering form of death. Death of hope. Death of our dreams.
Often we feel that we just have to ‘get over it and move on’. We minimise our pain in order to put a smile on our face and appear normal. But facing up to the pain we experience is in fact an act of bravery and a vital step towards recovery. Feeling and acknowledging our pain is healthy. When we ignore it or stuff it down it merely emerges in other ways like depression, bitterness, stress or anger.
Because we feel emotional or soul pain does not make us weak or unspiritual in any way. Priest and writer, Henri Nouwen once wrote of his experience with what he called ‘The dark night of the soul’. He experienced the loss of a very great friendship which he had come to depend on. He went into emotional crisis and was extremely depressed. “Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and brings hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness”.
I first learned of the Jewish way of dealing with grief when I was watching Greys Anatomy a few years ago (What can I say? I’m clearly an intellectual!). One character had undergone a major life loss and their friends gathered around them as they lay prostrate in their grief and simply lay down beside them in their pain. This is similar to the Jewish tradition of Shiva.
Shiva (sitting shiva) takes place after the burial of a loved one. It lasts for up to seven days and throughout this time the focus is on the grief. The open expression of the internal sorrow is encouraged, the idea being that the grief is faced head on, openly acknowledged. It is an act of openly accepting the loss followed by a return back to life…helped by friends and family who ‘sit shiva’ with the bereaved. Life does go on, but first the pain is deeply felt and processed.
What I love about this is not just that the person in pain has a gathering of love around them for the grieving. It is that there is no judgement, no one trying to control what that person feels or how they express it, or telling them what they should or shouldn’t be doing. Or even trying to fix it. They are simply present. Journeying beside them in that ‘dark night of the soul’. To me this is love. This is how hearts heal and find joy beyond the pain.
Whether it’s dealing with our own pain, or the grief a friend or family member is going through for any reason, it’s perhaps worth remembering that what anyone in pain really wants isn’t well meaning advice, a cheerleader, or to be told ‘there are others worse off than you’; they want and need you to see their pain. To acknowledge it for what it is, and for you to sit gently beside them and hold their hand. To just be there. For as long as it takes. To show them through your act of love and understanding, a little piece of beauty in the midst of the darkness.