What do my addiction, incarceration, and the death of my father have in common? The pain.
If I zoom out beyond my own life, I can see that divorce, mental illness, losing a job, depression, suicide, dementia, cancer, and all causes of suffering are similarly intertwined. What connects them all are the painful emotions associated with them, the people they impact, and how those affected choose to respond.
The emotions around any of these painful life circumstances range widely: from guilt, shame, anger, and confusion, to sorrow, anxiety, and pity. All these natural feelings and their combinations need to run their course before any kind of healing or growth can happen.
Just as my incarceration impacted everyone in my life same is true for someone who’s lost a significant other, going through depression, fighting cancer, grieving suicide. Everybody feels it from family members, co-workers, friends, even acquaintances.
In the book Option B, authors Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explain that these happenings create an “elephant in the room,” something everybody knows is there, but nobody wants to talk about. These awkward elephant events come up for lots of reasons.
If the people in your life have not experienced whatever you are going through, they may not know how they could possibly help. If they believe that what is happening is shameful, they may not want to acknowledge it out loud to you or to themselves. They may be afraid of doing or saying the wrong or unintentionally hurtful thing.
This unspoken elephant can divide the impacted people. Those around the hurting person may pull back out of fear, uncertainty, or discomfort even though they want to help. When communication breaks down around these big, painful situations and people stop talking, relationships are easily damaged.
The person trying to cope may want, need, or expect help and feel even more hurt when they don’t receive it. (Oddly, there can be strangers or people you hardly know who step forward and truly help in these times. I have more than a few in my life, including my buddy’s mom Diane, my cousin Kim, and my aunt Susan.) Life’s most painful events are ones that most people want to avoid, so while it’s deeply hurtful, it’s understandable that folks will revert to inaction in the face of them.
If someone has experienced one of these “elephant in the room” events, they may find a way to reach out based on that experience. But what about when you know nothing about it?
What do you say to a parent whose child just committed suicide? What do you say to a mother whose son is headed into prison? How do you reach out to a friend who’s lost their job or is trapped in a pit of depression?
Everyone copes with the pain differently. The key is to acknowledge their suffering and to assure them that even if you don’t know what to do, you are willing to be with them through it. If they push you away, then allow them their space, but if they pull you in now or later, be ready to follow through on your word.
Use your intuition and trust yourself to act with kindness and care. If you think someone is depressed, gently ask them about it. If you know someone whose loved one is incarcerated, show up for them, willing to listen or talk.
Spend time with someone who is coping with the death of a loved one. Show someone who struggles with addiction that there is nothing to be ashamed of and that you will be with them.
When I was personally dealing with my addiction, I had a few people offer a place to stay or to pay for my treatment, but I didn’t take them up on it. I wasn’t ready. Once I was ready, though, I knew exactly who I could turn to and lean on.
For those who are in the midst of a painful life situation, Option B suggests the practice of writing or journaling. By writing your thoughts down, they get out of your head, which helps you see what you couldn’t see before.
I know that writing was pivotal for me in my process of healing and recovery. The authors suggest that getting the thoughts out also gives us a kinder perspective on ourselves. They say, “writing can be a powerful tool for learning self-compassion,” and that is absolutely my experience.
For me, the most painful situations came down to me forgiving myself. Until I could forgive myself, I wasn’t able to grow and move forward.
I started writing when I was five years into my prison sentence, and I had no idea where it was going or the impact it would have on my own life and recovery. But I know now that when I’m writing, I’m healing.
The fact is, everybody is going through something. Whether it’s an addiction, loss, depression, cancer, divorce, or simply anxiety about a situation in life, what’s important is how we support one another and learn from our experiences.
They can become launching points to a new life in a positive way. What feels like the end doesn’t actually have to be the end.
It can be the beginning of a new beautiful life full of opportunities and prosperity. You can take that terrible event or tragedy and use it to build resilience to a future you didn’t know could exist.
We all need help sometimes, so have the courage to ask for and accept it. Lean against someone and be ready to let someone lean against you.
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