A pastor I’ve been working with for over 10 years recently shared a cartoon with me. He found incredibly helpful in his work as a hospice chaplain. It’s a quote from Lois Tonkin on the website, whatsyourgrief.com: “People think that grief slowly gets smaller with time. In reality, grief stays the same size but slowly life begins to grow bigger around it.”
This quote wonderfully captures something our therapists, coaches, and spiritual directors recognize all the time: while we may yearn for a pain-free life, our pain can help our lives deepen and grow—when we let it.
I learned how true this statement was being a pastor for over 35 years, and having done hundreds of funerals. So many people I knew deepened over time as their lives grew through their grief. While grief doesn’t shrink, the pain of losing someone or something can help us become more aware of life’s preciousness. It can make us more aware of God in each moment. It can help us develop wisdom we didn’t have before.
The big word is “can.” Grief, pain, trauma, struggle, and more can help our lives grow bigger when we respond in healthy ways. The converse is also true: a life without struggle can cause life to atrophy. Most of us intuitively know how a pain-free life can stagnate life. For example, have you ever heard anyone say that he or she “graduated from the school of hard knocks”? They’re saying they’ve developed uncommon wisdom and understanding through their struggles.
Many people think that if God is good, we shouldn’t struggle. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. In fact, almost every main character of the Bible struggled, and became more caring, healing, and resolute in their service of God through their struggles. The list of those who grow through pain starts with Adam and Eve, and includes, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites, Joshua, the Judges, Ruth, Hannah, Elijah, David, Solomon, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the disciples/apostles.
Tonkin’s quote about grief has a lot of truth to it, and not only as it applies to grief. For generations counselors have recognized that people in therapy develop strengths, resources, wisdom, and depth they never had before and couldn’t develop on their own. The key is that they decided to work on their pain rather than repressing, depressing, projecting it, and/or inflicting it on others.
When people choose to work on their grief, their pain, their trauma, and more, their lives can get bigger. By now you’ve probably heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where a person’s previous trauma causes depression, anxiety, a sense of discontinuity, confusion, and chaos in his or her life. Have you ever heard of its twin, post-traumatic growth syndrome (PTGS)? Mental health researchers have recognized that some who go through trauma transform their lives, making their lives bigger, deeper, and more expansive.
It's this growth that explains why therapy, coaching, and spiritual direction are so important to people suffering long-term life pain. We help people transform their pain and suffering to become more expansive, compassionate, and healing. Most people in the helping professions have experienced great pain in their own lives. They’re trained to help, but they also offer their own wisdom crafted by working on their own pain. This is true of the war-traumatized veteran who now dedicates his or her life to helping other veterans heal physically, mentally, emotionally, and relationally. It’s true of the rape victim who now helps other rape victims. It’s true of the recovering addict who now serves as an AA sponsor or therapist. It’s true of a local, great hockey player who recovered from cancer and how dedicates part of his life to raising money to fight cancer.
I’ve spent my career in two vocations littered with people who suffered grief, trauma, and pain, and tapped into it in the pursuit of helping others—ministry and counseling. It’s rare to find a therapist who hasn’t suffered great pain in her or his life. It’s also quite common to find pastors who have struggled in ways that now allows them to heal others of grief, trauma, and pain.
I’ve often used a phrase to explain the reality of life, which is this: “No one gets out of life alive.” The reality is that life can be, and often is, painful. But that pain can be transformed into hope and healing when we choose growth over pain-induced paralysis. And our therapists, coaches, and spiritual directors are here to help.
Executive Director/Director of Caring for Clergy and Congregations