It was not even a week after the break up of my first grown up relationship. I was in my twenties and we had been together a lifetime. (That’s five years in twenty-year-old speak.) I was crying as I talked with my dad about how difficult the mornings were for me. He said, “it’s like you wake up and before you are even completely conscious, you are already aware of the weight crouching on your chest.”
I stared at him in stunned silence. How did he know? That was exactly what it felt like. Every morning.
His remark revealed that the pain I was experiencing was not unique, that he understood, and that I was not alone. It was a gift.
Most of us will feel gut wrenching pain at some point in our lives, perhaps many times. It is so commonplace, that when not personally suffering from it, we begin to become deadened to its impact. We feel sad for those suffering. But we don’t FEEL their suffering. We don’t peek into the window of the hourly heartaches that come from loss.
Our stories of relationship loss are so common that they become cliched. The husband leaves the wife for a younger woman. The wife leaves the husband for a wealthier man. One spouse cheats on another with a colleague.
There is only so much empathy in our well. We cannot call it forward for every trauma without running dry. We nod sympathetically at the deepest, hardest pain a friend may ever feel, but we don’t allow ourselves to imagine the way it feels for him to walk into his family home and find it empty after so many years of walking into the cacophony of children, pets, and his partner. Or the pain of listening to the dog’s toenails tap, tap, tap across the floor each time a car goes by that sounds like the missing spouse. Or the stab in the gut when the Valentine’s Day advertisements show up at the house with both names on it, months after the divorce was finalized.
It’s not just break-ups, of course. It is deaths, job loss, or careening unexpectedly off the path you thought you were on. It’s not just the events themselves, but the thousands of ripples of pains and traumas associated with them. Those bruises and cuts that only those who know your life inside and out or those who have been through something similar can relate to.
There is a power in standing with someone in their pain. During the hardest time in someone’s life, the earth continues to spin. People continue to go to work. Bills require payment. The dog needs walking. But their internal world has stopped. To have someone bear witness to something that is tragic in their life, even if meaningless to the rest of the world, is some of the deepest therapy.
While it isn’t possible to be fully present with every person in your life when they are suffering their deepest pain, I challenge you to be present when you can. If only for a moment.