While sitting with palpable pain in therapy, I am often moved to find some tool, some intervention, some words of comfort, to ease the suffering. When I’m lucky, I find a way to express hope, in some form or another.
But today, I could not find the hope. So I sat with the pain. I thought about his history of trauma and loss. I recalled the trauma-informed literature which teaches us that resilience is an antidote to trauma. One way to cultivate resilience is to find meaning in the loss or purpose in recovery. It turns out that finding purpose is a key factor in one’s ability to cope.
Together my client and I explored caretaker anguish; The guilt of having fierce, negative emotions when you are not the one dying; the heavy load of day-to-day management of grueling, thankless, tasks that take you nowhere but back to where you started. We both spoke with somewhat of a scholarly tone, about the darkness, the heartache, the meaninglessness and the existential agony. We had nowhere to go.
This is when we sit with suffering.
So I brought my mother into the conversation, as I tend to do when I am thrust into unfamiliar yet familiar despair. I told my client about my mother’s history of profound loss and how the Holocaust had become a measure, for me, of what excruciating suffering looks like, feels like is like. I told him how hard and how well my mother works to devote her life to finding joy, for her own sense of sanity, and on behalf of the love she sprinkles wherever she goes, making this world a better place, to be sure.
I told my client that now, my mother finds herself confined by her love and devotion to my father who suffers from Parkinson’s along with its cruel pain and suffering. His days begin with tedious attention to detail colored by pervasive distress and debilitating physical symptoms. My siblings and I observe from afar, as my mother dances, sings, and whispers sweet nothings in his ear, hoping against hope for a flash of a smile or, a thank you.
She will wait.
She dances and sings in the meantime.
My client and I share a smile at her persistence. Her impressive devotion. Her hope. This is when I told him what she said to me one time, when I asked her, “how do you do this? Every day. With no complains. Asking nothing from anyone. How do you do it?” I asked with full knowledge that I am not made of such self-sacrificing DNA. And while I may share her kind heart, I DO ask for help and I DO ask for attention when moved by a generous moment of my own.
She told me it makes her feel valued. It makes her feel necessary. It makes her feel useful. She found purpose in her day-to-day struggle. She found meaning. A key to resiliency.
And she smiles.
She had, unknowingly, used her unwavering determination to master her environment. In doing so, she embodied the brilliant words of Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
My client listened intently to my words with a tear in his eye. “There is nothing I would rather do, on any and every single day, than take care of my Laura. Absolutely nothing.” he said warmly.
“I know.” I smiled, with a hidden tear of my own.
Mastering our environment is something that can feel impossible when the odds of anything getting better are slim. The chronic wear and tear of grief and loss paralyzes any prospect of hope. Still, if we can summon the strength to confront the anguish and do our best to find bits of joy in the face of unrelenting grief, it might pay off.
This is one way to find purpose. And finding purpose provides meaning to the suffering, it creates resiliency, and it inspires hope.