Those who have deeply suffered know the only way to attain authentic and lasting contentment is to turn our hearts outward in service to those who are suffering. Here are two stories…
On Being With Grief
When I want to be with my grief, I hike barefoot into the mountains, usually alone and in silence. I found this practice in 2007 when I was hiking up Brewer Trail near my home in Sedona, Arizona. I’d had a stressful week and felt on edge, my mind discursive.
The day before, I’d been in contact with eight families whose children had died. The grief moved through my body—it was palpable—and I felt my own sense of despair for the agony I knew they suffered: an agony for which there was no cure, no verse, no healing I could perform. I knew I needed to get into nature.
The magic of the natural world has always awed me.
But on this day, the superficial distractions of my mind taking me away from my own potent feelings of shared grief were powerful enough to disconnect me from my emotions. Disconnected, I no longer felt angst about the too many grieving families I’d met the day before, but I also missed every bird’s song. I missed the clouds and the rising sun. I missed the manzanita and the little daisy growing between the spines of the saguaro.
It was as if I wasn’t even there at all. Before I realized it, I’d hiked almost two miles to the top of the trail but had no memory of the journey there. Preoccupied and out of my body is not a way I want to live my life. So I decided that I would emulate the discalced Carmelites of the 15th century and hike barefoot down the trail.
This practice, which I use about monthly, teaches me to stay present even when the present moment hurts.
It teaches me that I can feel grateful for a cool, smooth stone on the path.
It teaches me that I can avoid the cactus needles when I pay attention—and that rocks between my toes hurt.
It teaches me that though I cannot always see around the next corner, I trust myself on this path.
It teaches me that sometimes I can lean on the unexpected, like the titan juniper I’d walked past many times but never really saw.
And it teaches me that I cannot provide shade for myself—only another being can provide shade for me.
Through Knowing Suffering
Anna called me one October afternoon. She was having a bad day. Anna had come to see me after the death of her four-month-old son, Jared, from SIDS a year earlier. At the time, she’d called herself “beyond suicidal”—a state that she described as so apathetic she couldn’t even muster the energy to think about ending her own life. When she phoned, she was hysterical; I couldn’t understand her.
[Also read: “How to Recognize Warning Signs of Suicide.”]
When she caught her breath, she told me she had been—as we’d discussed—engaging in self-care. We were nearing the anniversary of Jared’s death, and she’d done a little shopping and had been eating her favorite meal at her favorite restaurant when a very obviously pregnant woman came in and was seated with her friends near Anna.
She was having a baby shower. Anna had felt sick.
She described feeling confused and overwhelmed and noticed a surprising anger erupting in her toward the pregnant stranger. Anna told me she’d wanted to turn to the pregnant woman at the baby shower and say, “Save your receipts—because some babies die!”
Anna had managed to avoid that outburst, but her mind had been filled with rage and self-loathing. She left her unfinished meal on the table and headed toward the door.
Then she’d paused, taken a deep breath, pulled out a Kindness Project card, wrote Jared’s name on it, and paid the bill for the baby shower, anonymously.
After that, she called me, weeping.
We spent almost an hour on the phone discussing how it felt: bittersweet, stinging, honoring, painful, and shameful.
Later that day, I received an email from the MISS Foundation website inquiry form: “My name is Anne, I am a labor and delivery nurse. I was having my baby shower today and someone paid our bill in loving memory of her son Jared Michael. If you know who this lovely person is, would you let her know that she touched all of our lives today, and that when this baby is born she’ll know one day that an angel named Jared touched us.”
Read more about dealing with grief.