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Suffering has purpose

Are some tragedies impossible to overcome? 

I’ve asked myself this question many times, and parts of me say, no.  All suffering is reconcilable.

Other parts say, yes. There is unfathomable misery in the world; how can one possibly extrapolate any good from it.

It’s an odd concept, thinking that suffering can be meaningful, even purposeful.

The idea that our darkest hour of immeasurable pain can be useful or pull us toward something brighter seems like a quagmire we’d prefer to avoid. 

But we shouldn’t. 

It feels good to feel good.

Happiness, joy, excitement: these feelings all have backstories, and we’re more likely to pursue activities and people that give us these feelings because of our attachments to these stories. 

Imagine the time you hiked to a glacial waterfall mid-summer with a person you were falling in love with. 

This would have been a magical experience that you undoubtedly try to simulate over and over again in different ways because of how amazing it felt. Picnics on the beach, rock climbing, skiing, bike riding. Anything that looks even remotely like that magic is something we want more of, naturally. 

But experiences and relationships aren’t static.  Happiness isn’t a fixed state. Eventually, something happens to fracture that state and we are left to negotiate the outcome.  

Sometimes yoga and a good cry with a friend is all it takes to repair what’s been broken. Other, it’s not as smooth a transition, and all the meditation and walks and downward dogs and workouts in the world don’t make much of a difference. 

Sadness, anger, heartache, grief: these feelings are energies, too, much like happiness, and they have power and intensity not because of what they are innately, but because of the stories we attach to them.

All emotions have a storyline, and it’s this narrative that drives the meaning behind our feelings.

So what do we do with uncomfortable feelings? 

  • Avoid them? 
  • Bury our heads in the sand and pretend they don’t exist?
  • Numb them with drugs and alcohol, food or sex, shopping or social media?  

Yes. That’s often what we do.  Far too often, we choose to get as far away as possible from pain and suffering, even if we’re not really aware that’s what we’re doing.

We make poor decisions to Band-Aid a gaping wound. Does the problem get solved? Does the root issue of that pain go away? No, it doesn’t. 

If anything, the pain gets more intense and more insurmountable and we have to work that much harder to keep the feelings at bay. 

Temporarily things may get better, but unresolved issues and pain have a nasty way of resurfacing.

So what should we do with uncomfortable feelings?  What is a more effective way of coping with discomfort, suffering and pain?  Ready for it?

Lean into it. 

Leaning into our discomfort means coming to a place of acceptance with our discomfort, and giving permission to ourselves to allow those feelings to be, just as they are. 

Leaning into our sadness or anger or grief means allowing those feelings to bubble over, to give them space to simmer down, to feel them melt away. 

Leaning in means to find a way to befriend our pain, so that we can hold hands with it, make peace with it, maybe even eat cake with it. 

It’s less scary then. The stories we make up about how hard it is to feel our pain keep us trapped, keep us from actually experiencing pain presently and without fear. 

When we can start paying attention to our feelings, we are free. 

OK, you say. I’m ready to eat cake with my ghosts. I’m ready for the thaw. Now what? 

If your feelings are overwhelmingly intense and coupled with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you’ll absolutely want to start exploring your pain with a professional. 

Safety is key with exploring unknown or feared territory, and a mental health professional can be a great guide. 

Remember, slow and steady wins the race. The goal is not to rip off the Band-Aid; the goal is to release the pressure valve little by little and build resilience over time. 

If you’re not into seeing a therapist, perhaps you have a trusted friend or family member you can confide in.  Depression, anxiety, trauma: they are all starved by social engagement. 

The more you can reach out, connect, and start talking, even just little bits, the better off you’ll start to feel. 

And if you’re not ready to open up to a friend or family member, perhaps you can join a support group or utilize the crisis lines. 

Finally, if none of these options sound good to you, put your pain in a canvas or a song or a story, or take it to nature. Take that pain and create something with it; the energy has to go somewhere.     

When we’ve given our feelings a platform and can bear witness to them safely and with an open-mind, we become stronger.  

As a result, we learn new things about ourselves and the world around us. 

We may learn to identify patterns of unhealthy decision-making that motivate us to make a career change, or leave a toxic relationship. 

We may learn to be more comfortable with being alone.

We may learn to be more inclusive and less judgmental of others, whereby enriching our connection to the community. 

We may make new choices that lead us in a direction of joy and meaning. 

By accepting and allowing our discomfort and pain to move through us, we align ourselves with the person we want to be, the goals we want to achieve, the life we want to live. 

The meaning of life

On a recent trip to Vancouver Island, it took me four days to notice the oceanfront view from the house we had rented for spring break. 

Four days.

Looking back, I chose to rent this house for our family precisely because of its location, and yet, I had completely missed it. How could I have missed it? 

As I stood in the sunroom looking at the beach I spent my youth on, I realized I had lost a quality of connection to the life happening all around me. 

I had become myopic, and lost sight of some other important dimensions of my life. As a therapist, I feel ashamed about this. As a human being, I see this as an opportunity for growth. 

Travelling with my two-year-old is pretty fun. He’s adaptable, easy-going, and charming. He’s also very busy, which requires me to have a physical and mental prowess akin to a Jedi.  

He has some turbulent moments, too, which requires me to be patient, attentive and emotionally self-regulated, much like a Buddhist. 

By the time his bedtime rolls around, I’m running on fumes and long for rest.  Some days I don’t have the energy to process this shortcoming. Other days, like the one in Victoria, I feel ripped off. 

You see, I was in my hometown to visit my newborn niece and family, and Victoria was in full bloom. The cherry blossoms were bursting at the buds, the sun was sparkling off the ocean, and the birds were rejoicing. 

After living in a snowy, grey, ping-pong ball in Kelowna since about October, you’d think I would be hyperaware of my new surroundings. But I wasn’t.

I was too caught up in sticking to routines and schedules, running interference on my son’s explorations, cleaning up mess after sticky, smelly mess, organizing lunch bags, putting away the same toy for the 15th time, and managing meltdowns.  

I forgot to look up.

Maybe it was the ocean breeze or the seagulls courting each other in song. Whatever it was, on our walk to the beach that afternoon, it gave me great pause.

I took a deep breath of the salty air, and exhaled all the management I’d been doing for years. I felt my feet on the wet rocks, listened to the ocean lap against my son’s boots, and felt the sun on my face. 

I saw my mom and my sister-in-law embracing, and felt profound gratitude for my family. I watched my son dancing in the shoreline and let go of my need to keep him dry.

I watched a floatplane take flight in a dusty blue sky. In this moment of sensory connection, I found a peace and joy that filled my soul to the brim. 

I’ve long practised mindfulness and meditation, and always thought I’ve done a pretty good job of living and teaching this work. But experiences like the one I had at the beach are transformative, and I’m a work in progress. 

The power of that feeling is one I want more of, so I have to dig deeper. 

Connection is the heart of life. Further still, the quality of the connections in your life is paramount to living a purposeful and meaning-driven life, which generally results in happiness. 

When we lack connection to self, others and the world, we’re just shells, and after a while, that feels pretty empty. So what can you do to connect more fully with your life?  Here are a few (of literally hundreds) of my suggestions:

  • Slow down. Your business won’t fail, you won’t lose your job, your relationship won’t end, things won’t fall apart.  If they do, they weren’t strong enough to begin with, and that’s worth examining.
  • Find joy in simple, sensory things. Notice the sensation of eating or listening to music and connect to the force it ignites in you.
  • Put down your phone, and go outside. The natural world can be a profoundly healing resource; take time to reflect on your environment and find gratitude for your place in it.
  • Get personal. Have lunch with an old friend, kiss your partner, hug your mother.
  • Make bids for connection. We are constantly doing things in a bid to connect with someone or something. Examine the ways you do this, and see if you can do more of it or if there’s a need to do things differently. 

The awareness of, and connection to, my son is unparalleled, yet my quest for mindful connections in other parts of my world will be lifelong and sometimes challenging.   

No one ever said being a Jedi Buddhist was easy. 

Losing a child

I am a mother, first and foremost. Most of my day-to day decisions are governed from this place of mothership which, as mothers know, can feel weighty and unrelentingly selfless but glorious nonetheless. 

My child’s safety and well-being, his laughter and his joy, his love and fears, his mind and his passions are mine to lose. The gravity of this responsibility is crushing some days; yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Each day with him is a privilege.  

As grateful as I am for my son, I know there are mothers who aren’t so lucky. 

Mothers who have felt their child’s radiant life-force cocooned in their bellies, felt total surrender, only to be betrayed by the forces of their own body.

Mothers who have wept silently, alone in a bathroom, never to speak of their misfortune again. 

Mothers whose nurseries cradle no one. 

Losing a child is among life’s worst tragedies. It is a plight no parent ought to forage, territory better left unclaimed. But it happens. Limited data on miscarriages in Canada (pregnancy that ends on its own before 20 weeks gestation), suggest as many as 10-20 per cent of confirmed pregnancies end in miscarriage. 

This means there’s a good chance someone you know has suffered a miscarriage. 

Additionally, stillbirth rates (a baby who dies in utero and is delivered after 20 weeks of gestation) in Canada measure 7.1 per 1,000 births. In 2012, the most recent year data was collected, this meant 2,774 out of 380,660 babies were stillborn. 

Further still, Canada’s infant mortality rate (number of deaths of children less than one year of age) is 5.1 per 1,000 live births. This means 1,903 children under the age of one died in 2012. 

These numbers are horrifying.  Families’ hopes turn to heartbreak, and they are never quite whole again. 

There can be so much fear and uncertainty during pregnancy, at delivery and in general child-rearing, it’s a wonder we keep doing it. But women have done so since time immemorial and will continue to do so in perpetuity because the benefits far outweigh the risks. 

The solution to loss is not to stop having babies; rather, the solution lies in learning to cope with the loss and adjusting to life without a child. 

First, give yourself permission to grieve, however that grief shows up.  Whether it’s anger, sadness and depression, guilt and shame, isolation, let it be just that. Eventually, these feelings won’t be so intense anymore precisely because you’ve paid attention to them. 

Next, lean on someone you love and trust and start talking. Too many women hide in silence, when what they should be doing is opening up and sharing their intense thoughts and feelings with a safe person. 

Talking is a catharsis and helps move the grieving process along. If there isn’t anyone in your life that qualifies as safe and loving, consider finding a therapist who can support you through your grief. 

Then, start finding a new normal. Life won’t ever be the same again, but it’s important to acknowledge that life can move forward in a new way once you’ve accepted the loss. 

Explore ways to honour your child, remember them and keep them close to you even though they are not in the material world as you know it.

This kind of adjustment is intentional and will take time, so be patient with yourself and only let go of what you can bear when you feel ready.    

There is no time limit with grief. You are allowed to feel exactly what you do for as long as you need to.  Our feelings aren’t static, and don’t last forever. Sometimes just knowing that can provide relief to the overburdened soul. 

Of all the wonderful and important things I hope to teach my son, resilience takes top spot. 

Being resilient encompasses self-awareness, strong emotional regulation skills, and great tenacity, three qualities that, when combined, mean it’s possible to overcome even the most wicked sufferings. 

Women become mothers not because they’ve had a child, but because they feel compelled to nurture and love an extension of themselves.

Once we feel we’ve become a mother, we are always a mother, which means the opportunity to teach resilience isn’t lost, it’s simply relocated back to the self. 

Once we’ve become resilient, we can open ourselves up to taking another chance to love selflessly again. 

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About the Author

Mother, wife, and therapist, Fiona Patterson balances life at home with a busy clinical practice in Kelowna.

After graduating at the top of her class and earning a master’s degree in counselling psychology, she did post-graduate work in interpersonal neurobiology, a methodology that seeks transformation through re-establishing healthy circuitry in a dysregulated nervous system. 

With a specialty in trauma, and practising from an attachment and somatic-based paradigm, Fiona has honed her craft to become a highly sought after trauma practitioner. 

Over the past 10 years, Fiona has worked for numerous health authorities both on the front lines and as a clinical educator, practised with non-profits, taught post-secondary psychology courses, and volunteered extensively in the mental-health community. 

She believes in the innate power and resilience of the human spirit, and helps her clients learn to tolerate discomfort in order to live a fully-connected, mindful life. 

When she is not practising or writing, Fiona can be found with her family hiking, biking, and travelling, or simply enjoying a home-cooked meal with a glass of Okanagan wine. 

If you’d like to learn more about Fiona’s practice, or book a session, please visit www.counsellingkelowna.com or email [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.