What Does Grief Have to Do with It?
It’s that time of year, when we tend to make more space in our lives for gratitude, giving, and even miracles. And considering the unique challenges of this particular holiday season, perhaps we’re turning toward these notions even more.
Yet even in non-pandemic times, the holidays can be difficult, especially for those dealing with loss of any kind. Feelings of longing or loneliness are especially highlighted in contrast to seemingly unending snapshots of togetherness on social media and television’s portrayal of the ideal.
If you visited this page because you have a medical condition causing chronic pain, you've undoubtedly confronted inherent (and unwanted) changes in your day to day life. During that early stage after diagnosis, we see ourselves through the lens of what we did, and who we were prior to a life impacted by intractable pain. In other words, people with chronic pain often become involved in an intimate relationship with grief.
When we ask for help it can remind us (consciously or not) that we’re no longer able to do things we could do pre-diagnosis days, at least not in the same way. On a deeper level, needing help can remind us that we’ve lost a part of ourselves. No wonder the topic of asking for help is so weighted. Who wants to open up to feel that sense of loss? Who wants to be reminded about something that’s so hard to accept?
A Foundation of Self-Acceptance
A friend of mine who, gratefully, does not live with a pain condition, recently lost one of the most important people in her life, her precious aunt. Not knowing how I could possibly help (do we really ever know what to do or say when somebody dies?), I reached out to express my condolences, and asked if there was any way I could support her in this time of grief. She responded by saying she finds poetry to be of comfort and asked if we could read some poems together over the phone (if not for the pandemic, I imagine we would have met in-person, somewhere in nature).
As much as I love poetry (and all things related to the written word), it wouldn’t have occurred to me to offer to help her in this way, and hearing her request gave me a surprising sense of relief. I couldn’t bring back my friend’s loved one, or take away that gut-wrenching sorrow, but I could - in a clear and concrete way – give her something she needed.
I also felt a sense of admiration. I don’t know if she would have directly asked me for these poetry sessions if I hadn’t reached out, but she responded, and did so with clarity and a quality that should always be a priority for people with high-impact pain - self-care. Ultimately, my friend’s ability to make this request came from a place of self-awareness, as if to say, “I need the comfort of poetry right now” and self-acceptance, which might sound like this: “I’m in a lot of emotional pain… I lost somebody I love dearly” or, “As hard as it is, I will feel these feelings of grief”, or “I don’t need to go through this alone”.
Most people have at least some skills to communicate their need for help. So, what gets in the way?
My friend had clarity about what she needed, but her response, and why it was so striking to me, was not the norm. Most people have difficulty identifying what they need from a loved one in the first place (which of course makes asking for help impossible).
Another barrier to asking for help has to do with feelings of vulnerability. As children, we didn’t learn how to express our vulnerabilities (much less how to grieve, or how to ask for help). Underneath that vulnerability usually lies a sense of fear, so it’s helpful to ask ourselves, “What am I afraid of”? For some, the fear is about appearing weak; others fear rejection or even abandonment. All of these feelings are amplified by the magnitude of physical pain and other symptoms secondary to an incurable medical condition.
We must also acknowledge our societal value of independence (and our hard-wired propensity toward it) and look to our family upbringing and cultural beliefs to understand our feelings and behaviors about asking for – and receiving – help. From that point, we can move to a place of self-acceptance and make choices that are in our best interest. Easy-peasy? Nope, it’s a psychological process made more doable by – you guessed it, getting some help!
Chronic pain also tends to evoke feelings of guilt. If you feel guilty about asking for “too much” from people, consider one of the greatest antidotes to pain and suffering: being of service. Contributing to the world, even in small ways, connects us to humanity and gives us a role in repairing society. When we ask ourselves, “How can I be of service to others?” we show up more presently in all of our relationships and worry less about asking for help.
Like my friend did, we should allow ourselves to grieve and become open to self-acceptance. Only from that place can we become curious about what we need and ask for it, and we can best learn this through mindfulness practices (e.g., meditation, journaling, yoga). Mindfulness practices should be part of our daily lives, as they are the entrances to self-acceptance.
Asking for Help and Needing Help
Ask yourself if one of these statements resonates more:
“I don’t know how to ask for help” or
“Asking for help feels awful because I don’t want to accept that I need the help?
However related, distinguishing between these two issues is the place to start. Here are some tips for both that I hope you find helpful.
- Clear communication (begin from a place of “I…”)
- Specificity (ask – in simple terms – for exactly what you need)
- Express gratitude (versus apologizing for needing help)
- Use your resourcefulness (access various means of support so you’re not relying on only one person)
- When it feels particularly hard, shift to asking for help from a place outside of yourself. This, of course, is different for each of us, depending on our beliefs. We might ask:
- Please help me accept my pain levels today
- Please help me find self-compassion in this moment
- Please help me be okay with asking for help
Where we might seek help for deeper inner-wisdom:
- journal writing
- G-d or a higher power
- a loved one who has passed
- the animal world (oh, the wisdom animals have to offer!)
- the Universe
- the dream world
People who care about us want nothing more than to take away our pain. So, until a day comes when they can hand us the key to a cure, why not find ways to let our loved ones experience what my friend gave me – the chance to help in a concrete, doable way. These opportunities are sacred gifts, and who doesn’t want an unexpected gift – especially this time of year.