Saturday, September 19, 2009

What Really Helps When Life Hurts

(Cousin Nate hugging his Cousin Georgie)

Greg and I have both traveled through the darkest of valleys in our past. The pain of that time remains palpable and we do not want to forget the "dark night of the soul" experience even as we are basking in a season of sunlight and joy and love right now.


Because that dark time stretched our compassion/understanding/empathy in ways that we are now using "in the light" to help others get through the fog of despondency. Some lessons we learned in our valley:

1. Nothing helped more than someone who really cared and listened, deeply. Often just the act of talking about a crisis or tragedy takes the terror out of the event and gives comfort. And even an hour of comfort is an enormous blessing. You can give no finer gift.

2. My friend Shawn sent me a little story about a child who offered to "cry with" a man who was sad. In essence, these are the friends I most cherish in my darkest moment. The ones who withheld judgment to offer their tears and "help me cry."

3. Never say never. When I went through the shock of divorce, I was amazed by my own mental and pscyhological reactions to trauma. I often felt kidnapped by my flailing emotions. I was not "myself" for a very long time. I now understand how good people can do very odd things during a traumatic time. Writing and studying the brain in trauma has further widened my compassion for those suffering from mental or emotional pain. The mind is no different than a bone, it gets shattered, splintered and it takes time to heal. We need to give people a wide berth during crisis and a boatload of grace. For as Jesus said of his children, from the cross, "They know not what they do." None of us knows, with certainty, what we are capable of doing, given a certain set of circumstances, or a brain hijacked by pain, or bad chemistry firing.

4. Professional therapists and life coaches and doctors all play an important part in recovery. But do not underestimate the power of a listening friend. And do not think, if you are the listening friend, that you must have the answers or some profound wisdom. Just being there, showing up, is 90% of what a wounded soul needs.

5. When a person is in overwhelm, it is often the old-fashioned simple things that bring a bit of cheer and relief. Sitting outside in the sun. A leisurely walk. A cup of hot tea served with love. Something for the hands to do -- like knitting, or as my friend Sue is doing -- creating collages from cut-up magazine pictures. Pottery. Hooking a rug.

When my stepson Troy stayed with us during a long recovery from surgery, I headed to the craftstore and bought him paint-by-numbers, a small latch rug kit, colored markers -- and he enjoyed/needed these little projects to keep his mind and hands occupied during the long hours of recovery that could have been so depressing.

In the book, Lifting Depression, the author describes a link between doing something with your hands and a release of comforting chemicals in the brain. Even vacuuming or coloring pictures, mending or ironing or folding clothes can be therapeutic.

6. Some kind of simple movement helps. Walking is wonderful. Swimming is great. I've come to love yoga, and as a Christian, I simply say, "Thank you, Lord" when in the prayer poses. There's something about the beautiful, simple act of humbly saying thanks -- with your body --that has increased my own sense of calm and joy.

7. A hot meal, chicken soup, a good fresh loaf of bread, a gift certificate for take-out (from a healthier restaurant) -- all of these tangible gifts are wonderful. Cooking and eating well tend to take a nose dive during hard or off-kilter times.

8. Offering to spruce up, clean up or paint a room. I will never forget something my adult children did for me when I was at the bottom of my life. My daughter Rachel organized her 3 brothers and picked out a pale sunny yellow paint to spruce up my kitchen and livingroom. I cannot tell you how much having a bright happy room in which to sip my morning coffee, did for my flagging spirits. I felt literally cocooned and hugged by my kids every time I glanced at the happy color surrounding me.

9. In cleaning out my files, recently, I came across a copy of this poem by John Fox. One of my absolute all time favorites. And again, there is no greater gift you can give someone who is muddling through the mire. Listening well, seems to me, a fine art. (Are you noticing a re-occurring theme in this post?) If you ask most therapists or counselors or good pastors or life coaches about the essence of what they do to help others feel better -- most would say, it is that they know how to "deeply listen" to another soul, and make them feel heard, loved and accepted. And so, I'll close with this.....

When Someone Deeply Listens To You

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you've had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind's eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!

When someone deeply listens to you
your barefeet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.
John Fox

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