On Healing 6/17/2002: Experiencing pain, not avoiding it, can help heal

The Buddha is believed to have said that life is suffering. Certainly parts of life involve suffering, sometimes terrible suffering. But while life involves suffering, the avoidance of suffering is like death.

Several people have asked me what the survivors and families of victims of the World Trade Center bombings will face now that the official work at ground zero has ended. For all of us, the rescue activity in those first days offered hope that some people would be found alive. When that hope dissipated, families hoped that their loved ones’ remains would be found. When that hope was lost, the activity at the site gave the survivors a sense of purpose and community – a place to mourn. Now that the work crews have left, the pain that they once felt was unbearable may just get worse.

That’s because the work at ground zero became a national mourning ritual.

Most cultures and religions throughout history have had mourning rituals. Often these are designated periods of grief with guidelines about how to act and what to do. We need ritual because death is so traumatic that we must have help to cope with the pain.

When my father died several months ago, I sat “shiva,” a traditional Jewish mourning ritual. For several days I stayed at home surrounded by friends who cared for me and shared stories about my father’s life. The pain was great, but being taken care of by my immediate community allowed me to experience my suffering in a safe environment and not worry about my other responsibilities.

When there is a severe trauma to the body, the first thing a doctor does is treat the shock. Mourning rituals are a way of treating emotional shock.

So what happens now that the mourning ritual at ground zero has ended? As anyone who has experienced trauma knows, the first day back to work is often the most painful: The condolence cards have stopped coming and telephone calls to offer support are less frequent; you are expected to return to your daily routine. As the support network slowly dissipates, loved ones are left alone with their pain. They return to routines that appear unchanged, but the people are very different than they were before. In the moment of trauma or loss, the pain is searing.

Many survivors say to themselves: “Yesterday, I was a mother, wife, husband or partner. But who am I now? Yesterday, I went to work as a whole person and although I might look the same to the outside world, today a part of me is missing.” We need time and space to find our new identity. The rest of the world, however, expects us to have “accepted it.” And yet people look at us differently.

The sad smiles or false compassion often add to our sense of alienation.

They try to say things to make us feel better but only make us feel worse. All of this makes it harder to keep the pain at arm’s length.

Sometimes even depression is a way of protecting oneself from the pain. Depression is a way of not feeling. When the suffering is too intense, we bury the feelings inside. But at a cost: irritability, anxiety, substance abuse, insomnia or a variety of other experiences. We bury emotions because they are too painful and overwhelming to face. Eventually, we become fearful of experiencing any pain at all. Carl Jung, the noted psychiatrist, once said: “Neurosis is the avoidance of legitimate suffering.” In other words, underneath many of our symptoms is a great deal of pain that has not been experienced.

There is a great deal of pain specifically as a result of unresolved mourning. A death we never really recovered from. A lot of family discord is because people have not mourned the death of their dreams or their expectations of one another. So they argue or feel resentful or get depressed.

Underlying it all is often significant pain that simply has not been experienced.

We live in a culture that does not tolerate severe pain. We spend billions of dollars on medication that makes pain go away quickly, and we judge and criticize those who have trouble moving on when they are in pain. The truth is, when there is trauma or loss, severe pain is inevitable. I was at a funeral a few years ago for a woman I loved. I was in agony, searing pain. I looked skyward and said, “I just can’t take any more pain.”

The response came back: “Sure you can. You just don’t want to.”

I know that at times the fear of the pain is far worse than the pain itself. It’s easy to believe that if we open the floodgates of pain the outpouring will never stop. But if we keep the water backed up behind them, we will devote our lives to worrying about floodgates.

So, what will happen to the survivors now that the work at ground zero has stopped? We don’t know. They may experience unfathomable pain, loneliness and emptiness. They may feel this off and on for the rest of their lives.

Most who have experienced dramatic loss feel occasional pain forever.

I hope that when the pain comes, they can simply allow themselves to experience it. True freedom is when we’ve learned we can tolerate pain – not when we think we’ve devised ways to avoid it. As awful as pain is, the alternatives are worse.

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