Learning from pain
Posted: Thu, 22 Oct 2020 14:15
As we approach the month of remembrance, in a time when we are all experiencing pain to a greater or lesser degree, Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB shows us a way of making sense of our pain, learning from it, and looking on it as a way of honouring our loss. (Photo by Çağlar Oskay on Unsplash)
I had an amazing conversation with a friend this week on the topic of grief. As we move towards the month of November, memories of loved ones will come to mind. He talked to me about the pain of losing someone dear to you. It can be a real physical emptiness and hurt that can tear you apart—if you let it. It made me realise that pain can be all too real and that it will take more than an aspirin to get rid of it.
I love Disney's 'Lion King' and one my favourite scenes is where the wise monkey, Rafiki, discusses past pains with the adult Simba; he helps him to see that we have to learn from past mistakes, with Simba having a painful head to show for it! Look at the clip linked here, and why not watch the whole movie with family and friends very soon? It will be a great treat and will bring a smile to your face—something we all need at the moment. Simba learns from experience and moves forward in trust, even with that painful head. He had to learn to adapt, and that life will not always be the same. The lives we lead can be our best teachers, as we live and learn, each in our own 'university of life'
We will all experience some sort of pain as we go through life; as adults, our natural instinct is to shield our children from pain. However, we cannot always protect them from the bumps and problems that life will inevitably throw at us. Sometimes, the pain is accidental, but, sadly, sometimes pain is inflicted on purpose, often by those who should know better—perhaps they are bitter, angry or just simply selfish.
In this time of global crisis, we see what real pain and suffering is about, as family, friends and strangers lie in ITU wards gasping for breath. We see the pain of the cancer suffer or those who need joint replacements, waiting for much-needed surgery and facing the disappointment of yet another cancelled operation. We see the pain of those too frightened to go out, who have become prisoners in their own homes because others refuse to wear masks or observe physical distancing.
In our pain and anger with lockdown or restrictions, we need to realise that we do have RIGHTS, but with those rights come RESPONSIBILITIES—something that can be easily forgotten. I would urge you to think seriously and look at the facts and wear that mask! Keep yourself and others safe. In these days, we need to learn from that pain-using the simple logic of a cartoon lion. As a nation we have been asked to face extreme hardships and many have lost jobs and homes in the fallout. The pain of COVID will be with us all for generations as we pay back the eye-watering national debt.
As a Church, we have to learn too: to appreciate the pain of those unable to get to their usual place of worship, unable to share in the Eucharist, essential food for our journey with Christ. We need to ensure that our most vulnerable are cared for and valued. We need to look at new ways to celebrate great festivals like Christmas, the Triduum and the glory of Easter, safely and with dignity. The social dimension of the Church, essential to build up the sense of community, needs to rebuilt in a safe way that reduces that pain.
What is essential and needed is deep theological reflection on our way forward. As a family, we have been this way before; humanity has given so much and endured so much in extreme moments of history. We have to appreciate how we dealt with pain during Exodus, the Black Death or Spanish Flu. Pain will always be part of the human condition; how we process it might be different. We have a duty to learn from pain.
In talking with my friend this week about pain, grief and bereavement, he raised the concept of 'honourable pain'—a pain that well may cause tears to stream down your face as you remember situations and people that have been central to your lives, but a pain that can also show true respect and honour. This type of pain can actually be therapeutic and move us forward.
The ones we have lost are still very much part of our lives; we never forget them and their memory is deeper than a prayer card in your missal or a faded photograph behind glass. As Christians, our central act of worship is based on remembrance, remembering a meal that Jesus shared with his friends and life given for others in true service. This life and this final meal led to the pain of the Garden, the Way of the Cross and the agony on the Cross. The honourable pain of Jesus brings salvation and new life. With a 'good grieving' and going through this honourable pain, our loved ones can never leave us. Hang on tight to your memories and let those tears flow if they must; my friend describes it as a deep cleansing, so that we can appreciate life at a deeper level.
There is no time limit on grief and don't let anyone tell you otherwise: some days are easier than others and some days will be best forgotten. Big boys, ladies and children CAN cry as they process this honourable pain—again, don't let anyone tell you not to!
The ancient Celtic tradition of the Irish Church is so helpful in times of grief, and is something that the pandemic has erased in modern Ireland. The whole village visiting the home of the deceased cannot happen, the whole village supporting the bereaved family through the funeral rites cannot happen, the final walk to the cemetery, as a united community cannot happen, the 'Month's Mind' mass cannot happen.
The pain of Covid-19 will be remembered for generations to come and it is right that we continue to remember. My dad was an avid newspaper fan, but he always looked to the obituaries first—it's an Irish thing, as you may have to change your plans to attend a funeral. He drew my attention to something that I thought was lovely: 'in lieu of flowers, please take a friend or a loved one out for lunch.'
The mystic, priest and poet, John O'Donohue can help us see the beauty of honourable pain, a pain that we can all share:
Though we need to weep your loss,
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts,
Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.
Your love was like the dawn
Brightening over our lives
Awakening beneath the dark
A further adventure of colour.
The sound of your voice
Found for us
A new music
That brightened everything ...
... Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.
When orchids brighten the earth,
Darkest winter has turned to spring;
May this dark grief flower with hope
In every heart that loves you.
May you continue to inspire us:
To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.
On the Death of a Beloved, by John O'Donohue