Good Grief! Tears Have Heart

August 8th, 2011

There is an awesome episode of the TV Sitcom The Office about grief counseling, when a former manager dies. Michael Scott gathers the staff together and describes his feelings in graphic detail.

It feels like somebody took my heart, and dropped it into a bucket of boiling tears. And at the same time, somebody else is hitting my soul in the crotch with a frozen sledgehammer. And then a third guy walks in and starts punching me in the grief bone, and I am crying, and nobody can hear me, because I am terribly, terribly, terribly…… alone.

Michael feels like no one is taking his loss seriously. After all, it is all about HIM. In a rare moment of insight, he says, “There is such a thing as good grief. Just ask Charlie Brown.”

He’s right. There IS such a thing as good grief. Discerning the healthiest way to “do grief” is important because we all experience it at some point. To live is to change. To change is to grow. To grow is to experience growing pains. At times, it may even feel like you are being pulled up by the roots and turned upside down. As much as you feel like numbing the pain, or running away to hide, stay with it. Grief holds treasures. Your richest potential exists in the under soil, beneath the circumstances, deep in the cells of who you are at your essence. Change and grief are unearthing your highest potential.

Staying with pain is the first truth of good grief. Like the kid’s rhyme about the bear hunt, you can’t go over it, you can’t go around it and you can’t go under it. You have to go through grief. Whether it is the loss of a family member or friend, the loss of a dream or any significant life change, go through it rather than trying to go around it. If you go around it, it will linger in the shadows of your psyche, and will likely come back to haunt you at some later time and in some destructive way. The same is true for supporting someone else who is grieving. As much as you might wish you could take away their pain, you also know that their pain is part of their unique life experience. You couldn’t take that opportunity for growth away from them, even if you had the power to do so.

Dr Paul Brand was a missionary doctor last century who pioneered new understanding and treatment of leprosy. He arrived home exhausted after a trip to London. As he took his shoes off, he discovered that there was no feeling in his heel. His extensive knowledge of, and experience with, leprosy made him terrified that he had caught the disease. He pricked his heel with a pin, but felt nothing. He pushed the pin deeper until he drew blood, but still felt no pain. He lay in bed that night certain that he had contracted leprosy. He imagined his life with leprosy, separated from family and friends, living as a social outcast. When he woke in the morning, he tried one more time to prick his heel with a pin. This time he clearly felt it. He yelled loudly. He felt the pain and now knew that he didn’t have leprosy. What a relief. From then on, every time he suffered an injury or any sort of pain, he said, “Thank God for pain!”

He later wrote a book called, “Pain; the Gift Nobody Wants.” One of Brand’s major accomplishments was a new understanding of leprosy. Leprosy doesn’t make your limbs fall off as people used to believe. It damages the nerves so that pain signals are not sent to the brain. Because the brain doesn’t register the pain, it doesn’t send messages to change your behavior, like taking your hand off a hot surface. The big issue with leprosy is self inflicted damage from not feeling pain, and secondary infections.

We tend to put way too much focus on numbing pain. Don’t get me wrong- there’s a place for easing pain; your own and others. Relief from pain often clears your mind and gives you new perspective. But it’s a problem when this turns into denial. We have subtle ways of denying pain, ranging from drugs that mask physical pain, to an over reliance on debt to avoid living within our means.

Cynical cartoon character Lucy offers Charlie Brown some jaded advice about emotions.

I’m worried about a little boy who sits in front of me at school. He cries every day. This afternoon I tried to help him. I whacked him one on the arm. There’s nothing like a little physical pain to take your mind off emotional problems.

The avoidance of pain when it first rears its head just delays the problem. By then you have fewer options and less time to solve a problem that demanded attention years ago. Don’t put off fully experiencing the pain and disappointment of life. Feel it when it comes to your awareness, not so that you can wallow in self pity, but so that you can heal it, integrate it and move on with greater emotional mastery.

Thank God for pain, not because God wants nor needs you to suffer. There is nothing redemptive about suffering. You don’t need to earn your salvation or prove anything to God or anyone else. Thank God for pain because of the incredible growth it is bringing to your character. There is divine wisdom in wounds, a wisdom that gives you a fuller experience of life, and a deeper compassion for others. Thorns have roses, tears have heart and trauma has strength.

The first truth of good grief is to feel pain and go through grief. As Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Pain reminds you that you are alive; a whole being on a human journey of living, feeling, passionate growth that never ends and is always surprising you with the possibility of adding purpose to your days.

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  1. This is a fantastic post, Ian. Though I see the ways in which I still sometimes choose to avoid emotional pain, I am always aware of the rewards that come from facing it, feeling it, being it and (hopefully) even healing it.
    Good grief, indeed. Though I never realized Charlie Brown was being so profound. :)
    Thank you for this terrific reminder.

  2. ian says:

    thanks Brandan. I think the most profound wisdom comes from people who don’t realize they are giving it, like Charlie Brown and even Michael Scott :)

  3. [...] with people who share similar experiences can be transformative. The first truth of grief is to be fully present to the pain. The second is that you are not [...]

  4. [...] brings me to the fourth truth of grief. The first truth is to feel the pain and let it transform you. The second truth is that you are not alone, because [...]

  5. Carol Shimp says:

    If you’re going through hell, keep going. You will eventually reach the other side. Emotional stress causes pain in parts of our body. Discovering why we are out of balance, learning to let go of that which dosen’t serve us is the key to healing.  (Thank God for pain, not because God wants nor needs you to suffer. There is nothing redemptive about suffering,)  I always believed this, Thank you for puting it into words. Blessings.

  6. Lisa says:

    Ian, I juuuuust posted about this very thing — RADICAL ACCEPTANCE!!!  Allowing the painful parts of ourselves to be seen and holding them like we are holding a child.  http://barefootbarn.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/three-ways-to-mother-ourselves/
    YES YES YES!  Thanks, Ian. Your words.  Yes, just giving those parts breath and spaciousness is what heals.
    Blessings, Lisa

  7. Donnadale Smith says:

    Hi Ian,

    Your postings on grief are wonderful.  It is now two years ago that my son, of 34 years passed away with no reason.  All tests were done, but nothing surfaced, so the Doctors think it was arrythmia, where his heart just stopped.    My family has been devasted.  My other children, Steven and Carolyn are left without their brother and of course, I am without my middle child.  No pain has ever been so deep.  We will be gathering together again next Monday (May 21st), the day of his death, to remember positively and have a family dinner together.  Thank you so much for your posts.  They are very, very timely and very helpful.  Donnadale

  8. ian says:

    hi Donnadale, im so sorry for your loss and sadness. You sound like an awesome, strong family. May you find strength and hope in each other.
    I would also like to direct you to the talk I gave yesterday on grief. Im not sure that I will write it up as it was quite personal, but I would be pleased if you listened to the audio which will be posted in the next day or so. Much love

  9. short sale says:

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  10. ian says:

    Of course, please share.