Venn diagrams I'd rather avoid
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
I went water jogging yesterday. I'm water jogging because my back injury prohibits many other activities that will get my heartrate high, including running, biking, the elliptical machine, and, oh, pretty much everything except walking and water jogging. (Even lap swimming is something that I'm limited in doing, though I'm working my way back up on that one.)
Anyway, so there I was, in the deep end of the pool, my head out of the water, inching slowly forward while my arms and legs pumped wildly beneath the surface, and I started thinking about the many similarities between chronic pain and grief.
Chronic pain and grief both slow you down. It's been just over a month since Rebecca died. The sharp edge of disbelief has dulled a little. The pain is not quite as fiery. At times, I don't think about it for a few minutes. But everything is suffused with sadness. Even when I'm not actively thinking about it, my brain is still muddy, my movements still slower and more cautious. Getting anything accomplished feels Herculean.
Chronic pain and grief both come slamming in on you without warning. I can be walking down the road or climbing the stairs or just twisting the wrong way and, BAM! I'm in pain. Bad pain. Pain that stops you in your tracks. Which kind of pain, you ask? Either. Both. They both sneak up on you like that.
Chronic pain and grief may be temporarily diminished, but they never go completely away. It's always right below the surface, twinging occasionally to remind you. People saying things like "I'm glad you're getting over that" is frustrating because they don't want to have to explain yet again that there is no getting over it, just better times than others.
You *can* rally for a while and spend energy to push chronic pain or grief away, but it will return, often with a vengeance. This is one of the things that people least understand about both chronic pain sufferers and the grieving. People will see them engaged in activities, talking and laughing, doing something physical, and assume that this is the magic moment when they are "cured" of their pain or grief. They are not. They are "deficit spending" their energy, and will have to pay back that debt in the days to come. So don't get impatient if you see them out and looking well one day, and then hear that they disappeared back into themselves for a week. They are doing their best, and sometimes they have to protect themselves from getting too stressed out.
Chronic pain and grief sufferers don't know when it's going to be worst, and can't always be sure about what is going to trigger their pain. Walking 4 miles one day didn't feel bad at all. Walking 3 miles a few days later was like having my left leg on fire. I can't tell you what was different about those two days. The same with grief. Some days memories will feel warm and comforting, other days they will trigger anguish. They can't tell you what was different between Tuesday and Friday.
Chronic pain and grief sufferers often feel lonely and frustrated. They have to say "no" to so many things, and then know that they are going on without them. People eventually forget to invite them, even though they would still come when they were able. They feel stupid about complaining about this, because they can't guarantee that they will be up to accepting the next invitation.
Chronic pain and grief may both diminish with time, but that time is not a week or a month or even a year. And both will always be there, ready to resurface with fresh agony. My dad's been dead for 18 years, and every once in a while his death completely flattens me. Still.
So if you are spending time with someone suffering from chronic pain or grief, don't say to them, "I'm glad you've gotten over that" or "I'm glad you're better." Say, "I'm glad you were able to participate today" or "I'm happy to see you." Enjoy what they are able to give, and don't put expectations on them for the future.