Sadness, Loss, and Chronic Pain


First of a two-part series
An excerpt from The Pain Companion

When we’re in severe or chronic pain, our normal life is not available to us in the way it used to be. It isn’t the same as going on vacation, or moving to another town, both of which we consciously choose as enjoyable breaks from the everyday.

Instead, living in pain feels like being taken out of life. Our normal life recedes to a distance at the same time that the feeling world of pain becomes incredibly close, immediate, and demanding. Pain becomes our experience of life.

We may still be physically present, but most of our energy and attention is busy elsewhere, trying to attend to pain or keep it at bay or heal our bodies or worry about how it will all work out. We simply aren’t available to, or involved with, everyday life in the same way, and it does not feel like everyday life is available to us, either.

The time spent in pain can feel like lost time. This is particularly sad when you cannot attend or participate in important events, or when you must do so in your aura of pain. Even when you can participate, pain limits your enjoyment and leaves you with a feeling of not having been entirely present.

My time in pain has been particularly heartbreaking for me in terms of being a parent. I have been unable to participate and contribute in many of the ways I have wanted to, and I have felt an immense sense of loss.

I used to be a world traveler and very active, so I had planned to travel and go backpacking and camping with my son. When I was injured, I was in the process of teaching him to swim, and we’d gotten our bicycles tuned up for some long rides. All that went out the window.

In addition to that loss, I was no longer able to work, which meant that I lost not only my ability to support myself financially but my hopes and dreams for my career. This was also true of my avocations. I had begun a series of watercolor paintings and had some interest from art galleries, but my injury forced me to put that project on the shelf indefinitely.

Anyone who experiences pain over time has stories like these. You feel sadness and loss not only for the time and experiences that are eaten up by pain but also for lost dreams and goals, as if your connection to the future is being consumed by pain, as well.

Antidotes to Sadness and Loss: View Pain as a Landscape You’re Passing Through
Since pain feels all-encompassing while you are experiencing it (I think that’s why we describe it as being in pain), it’s easy to lose the ability to imagine anything else. It can be really difficult to remember what it feels like not to be in pain.

One day I woke up and realized I didn’t have a sense of a personal future anymore. I had simply stopped dreaming, because it seemed like my life was just going to be an endless stream of days in pain. So I started to think of pain as a landscape that had edges. It had a beginning, therefore it must have an end. Somewhere.

The landscape was nasty, ugly and burned-out, but it was only a landscape, a place I was walking through, not the entire world. I told myself that I would eventually reach other landscapes. I was just passing through this one.

This helped restore a sense of having a future. Soon after creating and working with the various exercises and antidotes in my book, The Pain Companion, I began noticing more green on the horizon of my pain landscape, buds on the blackened branches, and a rustle here and there in the bracken denoting small things coming back to life.

Look for the Gold in the Ashes
I have found it very difficult to deal with the sense of loss I feel due to the amount of time I have spent in pain. I have had to reframe the way I see those years. Instead of representing life lost, they represent a different kind of life, equally valuable, even if I couldn’t yet completely see how.

When I went in search of the gold in all the ashes, I realized that my son had learned some valuable life lessons through my painful condition.

He learned to think about someone else’s well-being other than just his own and not to take life and health for granted. He learned that he was important and his contribution really counted, since I needed his help daily to do basic household tasks.

Living in pain can give you valuable insights. You will be bringing back a greater awareness of what others suffer and greater compassion for others. You can develop a fuller sense of gratitude for all the relationships in your life and a deeper appreciation for your body.

If you decide to delve more fully into the emotional aspects of being in pain, you may find expression for difficult feelings that need to move on. Working through these emotional aspects can allow a greater sense of freedom in life, even while you are still in pain.

Choose New Meaning
And, finally, when it feels like life in pain is meaningless, I remind myself that it is I who chooses the meaning of my life.

I can decide that I have wasted or lost the years I have been in pain, or I can choose to see them as years with a different kind of meaning.

Through my time spent with pain, I have, sometimes begrudgingly, learned a great deal about what it is to be a human being and how to find a deeper sense of an overreaching arc and flow in my life and the value of life’s natural vicissitudes.

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Sarah Anne Shockley
Sarah Anne Shockley is the author of The Pain Companion. In the Fall 2007, she contracted Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, which is a collapse of the area between the clavicles and first ribs, and has lived with debilitating nerve pain ever since. She has been a regular columnist for the Pain News Network and is a regular contributor to The Mighty, a 1.5 million–member online community for those living with chronic illness and pain. Visit her online at Printed with permission from New World Library —


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