The pain is too much.
You’ve tried to push it away.
Tried to deny it.
Tried to wrestle it down in the mud and hold it still until it stops kicking.
No matter how much you fight against what cannot be.
Will not be.
Must not be.
The tougher you fight, the tougher the pain fights back.
But what if there is another way? A way that actually brings relief?
My Surprising Role Model of How to Find Peace
My husband Don died of cancer. He was only 45 years old. He left six children behind.
I grieved hard for the ten months between his terminal diagnosis and his death.
I wandered the grocery store sobbing each week, eyes blurred too much to read the labels of the food I had no desire to eat.
I lost so much weight that my children started buying me food with their spending money.
I broke down sobbing in the middle of my job teaching college classes.
I sat up all night researching alternative treatments on the internet.
None of them worked.
I couldn’t see a path to living with peace again.
Heck, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to live.
“Maybe I’ll be one of those people who just burns down the house while I’m inside,” I told Don in a moment of desperation.
Turns out he would be the one to show me how to heal.
The Beginning of My Journey Towards Healing
Don suffered not only his own fear and grief as his illness progressed, but also physical pain. The nights were the worst. In his final months he was often up past two am — sometimes all night — pacing, rocking, climbing in and out of bed, in and out of a hot bath, all to try to find some comfort.
Mostly I waited up with him those long nights.
In the early morning hours after one particularly agonizing stretch, he sat up and said,
There is peace beyond pain.
Then he shut his eyes.
His ability to communicate was gone.
I was fascinated.
At that point Don was often either out of his head with pain or groggy from pain medications. His comment hadn’t felt like confused ramblings, though. I felt that he had been trying to tell me something important — even he couldn’t explain it, either that night or the next day.
And so I began a quest to understand what the heck he was talking about. And hopefully, to find my own peace beyond pain.
The First Clue to Finding Peace
The first clue came during another long night.
I sat cross-legged next to him on the bathroom floor, computer on my lap. He rocked back and forth, hunched over in pain. I rubbed his back with one hand and tried to complete an assignment he was worried about finishing for his job for him using the other.
He smiled up at me and said,
Love is a beautiful thing.
I mean, sure. It is.
I get that.
If I am ever awake night after night in intractable pain, I would like to have someone willing to sit up with me too.
But I wasn’t thinking about beautiful things. I was thinking about exhaustion and grief and frustration.
And that was my first breakthrough realization for finding peace beyond pain.
It’s where you put your focus.
Positioning Yourself for Peace
You’ve heard of that calm spot smack in the middle of a tornado or a hurricane.
Turns out, there can be the same place of stillness in a storm of grief, disappointment, or physical pain.
Even if the gales still rush and roar and whistle. Even if they still inflict major damage. You can stand in that space, and there is calm.
I’m not saying I stopped grieving.
But something in me shifted as I unraveled what he was talking about. There was stability under my feet. There were moments of joy, along with the overwhelming sadness. There was peace.
I was standing in the eye of the storm.
Finding the eye of a pain storm is different than finding the eyes of a wind storm. It’s not about positioning yourself geographically. It about positioning yourself mentally.
There are three key steps to doing that.
Learning the Five Magic Words: The First Step to Positioning Yourself for Peace
It is what it is.
Practice saying that to yourself.
It is what it is.
There are a whole lot of complicated psychological and medical and religious theories that boil down to these five simple words. Here are a few:
- Psychologists teach that the first step to dealing with suffering is something called reality acceptance. The idea is, the more you fight against what is, the more unhappy you make yourself. Once you accept what is, you can find ways to problem solve.
- Labor coaches teach expectant mothers not to fight against labor contractions. Fighting makes the pain worse. Instead they coach mothers to ride the flow and work with their bodies.
- Buddhists believe that there are four noble truths that explain — and heal — suffering. The first of these? Accept that life is suffering. Until then you can’t move past it.
- Christians learn to trust God, and to surrender to His will, as the path to healing.
Whatever way you spin it, I had been doing the opposite.
Can you blame me?
Lose the love of my life?
Raise my children without a father?
Oh heck no.
But saying it is what it is doesn’t mean you stop doing everything you can. I could still go to doctor’s appointments. I could still cook healthy meals and research alternative treatments and try to help him beat the odds. I could still love him with every ounce of my soul.
The difference was, I did those things from a place of peace.
He didn’t have to see me cry every time he looked at me. My children didn’t have to sit up at night wondering if their mother would be able to hold it together enough to take care of them. Standing in the eye of the storm, I was better able to do everything I could to help.
There is power in acceptance. That is also why the second step to positioning yourself for peace works.
Mindfulness: The Second Step to Positioning Yourself for Peace
If you’re anything like me, you probably aren’t very good at being mentally present.
Who can blame you?
Social Media notifications.
And besides technology there’s all the general life stuff to remember, organize, do.
You multitask as a survival skill.
Add in serious pain of any kind, and most of us start walking through life in zombie mode. You don’t really experience much of anything.
A side effect of that is that you also judge — things, events, people — as quickly as you perceive them. You don’t so much savor moments as categorize them.
But good and bad miss so much of the nuance of what actually is.
Like my late nights with Don.
When I was categorizing, that experience got labeled bad. And why not? It disrupted my routine and limited my sleep. It was frustrating and painful for me to see Don struggling. That’s all bad, right?
Sure. But there was also peace and beauty in those late nights. And sharing that experience added to the strength and depth of our relationship.
Don perceived those things because he savored the experience. Love is a beautiful thing.
And because he made room for all the nuances of the experience — the richness and love entwined with the suffering — he found meaning in it.
Finding the Meaning
Shortly before his death, Don asked everyone but me to leave his hospital room. When we were alone he said, “I understand. This is the meaning.”
Looking around the hospital room, I asked him “What do you mean? What is the meaning?”
Was he talking about sickness? Suffering? Was he describing some spiritual vision only he could see? Don was too weak to answer.
Later that day I tried again, “What is the meaning?”
This time he responded. “Love.” And then he asked me, “Do you understand?”
“I think so.” I smiled at him. “Love is a beautiful thing.”
He squeezed my hand.
And then, after a long silence, he added, “And life.”
That perspective was something that I needed to hear after weeks of sitting in a dark room both night and day, missing my children who were struggling in my absence, watching my beloved suffer and decline.
He was telling me that these wrenching moments are part of the purpose of life, not an interruption to it. They form the tapestry of our love, made more perfect for all the shades and colors and contrasts of the pattern. Is our love story more or less beautiful for the tenderness and difficulty and sacrifice of his final months?
Of course, it’s hard to think that way when you’re still fighting the pain. That’s why it’s time instead to open to the gifts the pain is offering you.
Gratitude: The Third Step to Positioning Yourself for Peace
Pain — whatever its source — always brings gifts.
Gifts of meaning. Gifts of perspective. Gifts of growth.
Give yourself permission to find them.
To unwrap them.
To give thanks for them.
Don and I were high school sweethearts. I delighted in the process of growing older together. I loved that I knew him as a teenager, barely able to grow facial hair, and that I witnessed the physical and emotional changes that maturation brought.
I knew the twenty-something Don, the thirty-something Don, the forty-something Don.
I loved to stroke his beard and feel the way it became thicker over the years. I traced the streaks of red that highlighted that beard, until they turned to streaks of white.
I imagined him in a Santa suit in another twenty years, with the full natural white beard to match.
I looked forward to experiencing old age together.
We’ll never get to share that now.
But I did get to share his final journey.
I held his beloved body through all the stages of cancer.
I sat with him through chemotherapy and immune therapy treatments, and their aftermath.
I lay next to him in his hospital bed when he struggled to breathe and coughed blood onto my cheek.
And at the end, when he didn’t remember where he was or what was happening, he heard my voice, and leaned toward me, and let me comfort him.
It was a sacred, holy journey.
And I am grateful.
Claiming the Promise of Peace
Merciless. Unremitting. Intractable.
It grips your your lungs. Wrenches your throat.
The line between physical and emotional blurs as you fight back — thrashing, struggling.
Determination hardens your gut. You resist the pain that must not be.
Until you stop.
Stop the fight. Stop the fear. Stop writhing in futile resistance and stand strong.
There is a place of calm.
A place where you can breathe.
A place where you feel beauty and goodness and hope unfolding.
You embrace them.
The battle subsides.
There is peace beyond pain.