Strategies for Coping with Suffering

I participate in a monthly covenant group. We’re a small group of six to ten people (depending on who is available) that get together once a month. We give each other brain dumps on our lives. We also pick a new topic for general discussion. We do all this in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist church that I attend. This month’s topic was how we cope with the nasty stuff that life throws at us.

This is a tough one for us UUs. Most of us do not believe in traditional notions of God. Many of us don’t believe in God at all and are rabid secular humanists. Those with more traditional faiths can project their anxieties to the Almighty through prayer. While some of us practice meditation, no one in my covenant group prays.

Coping happens on many levels. Suffering is usually sharpest when we experience the death of a loved one. But we may also suffer by watching someone we love suffer, and certainly incidents like cancer can cause enormous personal suffering. I feel fortunate to have thus far largely escaped the grief of the death of someone I loved. But I was the exception in my group. The members of my covenant group have all experienced the loss of someone very close to them. One woman related the death of her mother in 1979 from cancer. She broke down and cried. I thought: how extraordinarily attached she must have been to her mother to still feel such acute grief more than 25 years later. But in a way she was fortunate. Not many of us experience such a meaningful relationship with another human being during our lives.

Comparing their experiences with mine I felt very fortunate. I heard stories of a church member who will spend the rest of her life in a nursing home. Yet she still clings to life, in all its mundanity. My suffering is more prosaic: aging parents and coping with a spouse with fairly serious mental and physical health issues.

But who is to say whether one person’s suffering is worse than another’s? The friend in my covenant group lost her mother more than 25 years ago, but at least her mother is now at peace. The loss can still feel acute at times, but she has moved forward in her life. For those of us in a caregiver role, the ups and downs of the suffering of someone we love are a daily trial. What it lacks in extremes perhaps it makes up for in duration. For me it sometimes feels like a marathon that never ends.

How do people get over suffering? We opined that talking with friends and family helps. But I am not so sure about that. I think we all must grieve when we suffer loss. Part of the healing can come from expressing the grief, whether privately or with friends. As much as I love my parents, I don’t believe that unloading to them about my trials of the moment is going to make me feel any better. It seems we emerge when we piece together unique pieces of mental gauze to cover our wounds. It’s almost a quilt that we stitch by ourselves: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. No one size really fits all. We have to make it fit in the unique context of our own personal suffering.

I personally am skeptical that prayer reduces suffering. It may be a step in the healing process to project your anguish on a higher and unseen power, but suffering seems to be universal. Through suffering we learn life’s deepest lessons. We would be shallow and superficial people if we did not suffer. In some respects suffering is good.

I have found some strategies for me that, while no solution, act a lot like a temporary pain relief. For example, when I feel anxious or really stressed I find that exercise helps a lot. A vigorous thirty mile bike ride engages my mind and body. It takes me out of the immediate situation (assuming I can escape in the first place) and gives me a chance to focus on something else. When I get home exhausted and sweaty I feel like I have changed my perspective for a bit.

I have also learned to not put my hand on a hot stove. By this I mean that while I need to be involved in the care of people I love, getting too deeply nested in their problems can adversely affect me. I am not in a position to help them best if I cannot stay above the fray. I am not sure this is actually the best coping strategy, but it seems many times to work for me. The hard part is finding ways to stay concerned but not too empathic. If you truly love someone it can be hard to deliberately emotionally detach yourself from the situation.

Perhaps the best coping strategy for anyone suffering is to engage in life as much as possible. Admittedly this can be a tall order. That woman in a nursing home will find it very challenging to find ways to keep her mind busy and to bring other people into her life. But to some extent we can we can minimize our suffering by accepting that suffering is a part of life, but only a part of life. We need to make the deliberate decision to bring in the outside world even though we grieve. Death finds all of us in time. But life is also about many other things, including joy. We cannot experience these things if we stay mired in grief. Thus it is important to keep engaging, even while we grieve. To let the bad stuff out we must also let some of the good stuff in.

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