How Are Pain and Love Connected?

Author: Franklin Cook

As I sat with the other panelists in the opening session of my fourth TAPS National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar, and looked out at the sea of faces of those who had lost a loved one to suicide, I related strongly to the cumulative pain in the room. I often about the author speak about addictive behaviors as a way to numb pain, so I understand the idea that we wish we could escape from the pain of our grief.

Mentor and Boy at National Seminar

In that moment, instead of previewing the sessions I was to present, I felt led to share something philosophical about grief.

The pain you feel when you are in grief is intricately connected to – and intimately tangled up with – the love you felt, and still feel, for the person who died.

The connection between pain and love is real.

Whenever I am with bereaved people in a purposeful way, I feel their pain. I see it clearly, right there in front of me. I told the audience that I saw and felt everyone’s pain filling the room. 

Then, as I continued to look out at everyone in the crowd, I said that I also saw, and was deeply moved by, the abundance of love that was present in the room. That love made me aware of the presence of our dear ones who died. I believe the love and pain we feel are directly and profoundly connected. When people die, our immense love for them is often the source of our pain. 

Pain is a natural phenomenon.

Understanding this causal connection affirms that pain following the loss of a loved one is a natural phenomenon. As odd as this may seem, it is true that just as a fever is a healthy response to an infection in the body, the pain of grief is a healthy response to the death of a beloved person. 

Even though you might feel broken or crazy or hopeless in the midst of your pain, if you can later reflect on how normal these feelings are, then you can be reassured that nothing is wrong with you. 

It is okay to respond to the pain you feel in any way that does not harm you or others.

This realization can empower you to give yourself permission to express the pain of the loss: to cry when you are sad, to pound the table when you are angry, to speak of your despair when you are distraught, to declare that you cannot live without your loved one when you yearn for him or her, to withdraw when you cannot be with people, to ask to be comforted when you are overwhelmed.

There is nothing wrong with relating to your pain in your own way. Everyone is different in how they express their emotions, unburden themselves and say what's on their mind. These behaviors may be difficult for you, and they may not be understood or supported by some people you encounter, but they are legitimate ways to mourn the dead. It is absolutely okay for you to respond to the pain you feel in any way that does not harm you or others. 

The pain of grief provides fuel for profoundly heartfelt discoveries.

The connection between your love for the person who died and the pain you feel in your grief can also be a window to finding meaning in your loss. In fact, because finding meaning in the wake of a loved one's death is not purely an intellectual task, the pain of grief can provide the "fuel" for profoundly heart-felt discoveries. 

If your pain comes from the inability to physically embrace your loved one, then being close to loved ones may become precious to you in a newly profound way. If your pain is sparked by feeling your family will never again be the same, then you may search deeply for what matters to you about your family role. If your pain is prompted by losing the future you would have had with your loved one, you may gain a fresh perspective on finding composure and calm in an ever-changing world. When pain is tied to an overwhelming sense of feeling bereaved without your loved one, then you may see who you truly are in a different way than ever before. 

These examples of finding meaning might oversimplify a difficult and complicated matter, but the point is that losing a loved one breaks your heart, and grief breaks your heart open. The pain of grief, as dark and terrible as it can be, can also open you up to seeing life in a new light.

The thing that is "wrong" is that your loved one died, and the pain you feel as a result of that awful reality is entirely valid.

Expressing or giving voice to your pain without harming yourself or others is one of the essential challenges of grieving.

This requires that you be supported in finding safe ways to express natural yet intense emotions instead of stuffing them inside of you. You also need safe places to privately "let it all out" without interruption. Lastly, you need people with whom you feel safe saying what you truly feel and need to say without being misunderstood or judged.

Everyone is different in how they express their emotions, unburden themselves, and say what is on their minds. There is nothing wrong with relating to your pain in your own way; some people are more outwardly expressive while others experience grief privately. Just because you aren't a talkative person doesn't mean you're stuffing your feelings. Grief expression may happen through stubbornly completing a strenuous task. Saying what is on your mind may show through your actions instead of words.

The pain of grief can be terrible, and there is no sure way to stop pain from unfolding in real time. Finding safe ways to process your pain helps you see beyond it even as you are in its grip. Reflecting on the connection between your pain and your love for the person who died helps you uncover meaning in your life that comes directly from the relationship you had - and still have - with your loved one.

By Franklin Cook, MA CPC: Franklin Cook, Boston, Mass., is a consultant, speaker and trainer in suicide prevention and postvention (responding in suicide's aftermath). He has worked in peer-led suicide grief support since 1999, and delivers care via telephone through his Personal Grief Coaching service. His father dies by suicide in 1978.