When adversity hits those you love

Whether you are affected by the struggles of someone you care for – or are experiencing adversity yourself – it can be tough to find a way to be with the pain and suffering that life sometimes brings.

I offer the following ruminations on what I’ve found to be helpful when adversity hits.

Something to think about

I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.
— Anne Lamott

We live in a community of care

As human beings, we are wired to care for and about one another.  That care extends to times of joy and to times of adversity.  It is wonderful to celebrate birthdays, weddings and milestone accomplishments as a family and community. The difficult times of misfortune, illness and death are also a time of coming together – as we comfort and stand by each other in the face of life’s challenges and mystery.

Unless we harden our hearts to the situations of others, we are affected by what happens to those people that we love – and sometimes even those people that we don’t know but whose tragedies we read and hear about.

So how do we keep our hearts open, when faced with the challenges and suffering of others?  And how do we keep our hearts open in the face of our own adversity?

What I’ve learned

Here are four things that I have learned in my journey with loved ones who are facing illness or loss:

1.  Let go of the “why?” question

When a dear friend was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer, I railed against this situation for many weeks.  I couldn’t believe that this could happen to someone so full of life who contributed so much to others.  It seemed so unjust and it made no sense.  I was angry, confused and so very distressed.

Over time, I came to accept this situation, which I was powerless to change.  And eventually I concluded that the “why is this happening?” question simply wasn’t helpful and only resulted in my own suffering.

Acceptance of hard truth is never easy.  However as someone once wryly said, “You can fight with reality, but reality always wins.”  I have concluded that I cannot know what another person’s soul path is all about – and why things happen they way they do.  Many questions may never be answered.  And this is part of the mystery of life and death that we all wrestle with. Letting go of asking “why?” can free us up to respond in other ways.

2. Focus on giving thanks on a daily basis 

The benefits of practising gratitude have been well documented and written about.  And it is perhaps one of the hardest things to do in the midst of loss and adversity. However a daily gratitude practice can help us find the moments of light during very dark times.  And we need whatever light we can find!

I’m a big advocate of journal writing and its benefits.  I see journaling as a way to dump out the good and the bad of my day – like running clean water through dirty pipes.  It can be very therapeutic and grounding.

Some days my journaling can be a rant of all that is wrong with the world or not working in my life.  So I have cultivated the habit of listing “5 things I give thanks for” at the end of each journaling session.

What I have discovered through years of doing this practice is that there is ALWAYS something to give thanks for.  Sometimes my thanks are for the simplest of things: “the sunshine today” or “my warm bed” — and often it includes those people in my life that I love. Giving thanks doesn’t fix or change the adversity that another or I may be experiencing.  However it gives me fuel for the journey – and reminds me that even in the midst of challenge, I am not without daily gifts and resources.

3. Stay in the present moment

Being present to ourselves — right here, right now – is where our aliveness lives. We suffer when we anticipate and worry about the future. “I’m afraid I’ll be alone.”  “I’m afraid for my friend.”  “I’m afraid bad things could happen to me – or to the people I love.”  As researcher Brene Brown has pointed out, we engage in foreboding when we feel acutely vulnerable to loss. And anyone who loves is vulnerable to loss.

However, in the present moment, this fearful future only exists in our imagination.  It may or may not turn out the way we are imagining.  Can we be present to the feelings we are experiencing NOW, rather than the ones we are anticipating in future?  This is the challenge for many of us worriers!

Our emotions will come and go. That is the nature of emotions – always moving and changing. If we can be present to what we are experiencing in THIS moment — that is really all we ever have to cope with.  Though we fear our emotions will overwhelm us, they have much less power if we can accept them and know that “this too shall pass”.

I say this, knowing that this isn’t easy, when emotions are particularly deep and painful. However our fear of feeling pain or sadness is often worse than the pain or sadness itself.  In fact, it may be a relief to feel the feelings and let them move through.

4. Know that your presence makes a difference 

You may feel powerless in the face of a loved one’s illness or adversity and there may not be anything you can “do” about it.  For many of us “helpers” this can be difficult.  However I invite you to consider the great gift you can give by merely being present to another’s pain.

I have always suspected the difference that caring presence can make, however it was confirmed by the sharing of a colleague that I met a few years ago.  She was vibrantly healthy until she contracted Lyme’s disease in her early 30’s. At a particularly low point, she was in so much chronic pain that she couldn’t even speak to the friend who visited her.  However she told me that her friend’s presence — even though there was little conversation — made all the difference to her in being with her pain. Somehow it made it more bearable.  She wasn’t alone.

I try to remember her experience when there’s seems to be nothing I can “do” for another.  We can always bring our vulnerable, caring presence.

The courage to love 

So if you are currently rocked by the pain or misfortune of those you love — or are challenged yourself — may you find the grace you need to:

  • let go of figuring out ‘’why?”
  • experience daily moments of gratitude
  • focus on the present moment of your experience and
  • remember the gift that your presence may be.
Keeping our hearts open in the face of suffering is a courageous act.  Fortunately, love is a great source of courage.

Invitation to action

Take whatever suggestions seem helpful to you from this article and leave the rest.  And I would love to hear what YOU have learned about staying openhearted in the face of pain and suffering.  Email me! We’re all in this together.

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