Transforming your pain into a gift for others This Emotional Life - PBS

Grief and Loss / Blog

Dr. Paula Bloom

Dr. Paula Bloom's Bio

Dr. Bloom is a practicing psychologist, speaker, and frequent CNN contributor.

Transforming your pain into a gift for others


A woman I’ll call “Sasha” was referred to me by her primary care physician after her 12-year-old daughter died suddenly of unknown causes. This doctor believed Sasha needed therapy because of what happened. While therapy can be a powerful tool, most of life’s solutions are not found on the couch. (I am not shy about telling people this which, I have to admit, does not make for the best business model!)

Only three months had passed since her loss, but Sasha told me she was concerned, “I haven’t been breaking down.”

“I’m sad,” she said, “but I sort of feel like we have to move forward. I have a 7-year-old son at home, and he needs me to be present.” She describes moments of overwhelming grief but generally was functioning very well. Her home was relatively neat, her focus at work mostly intact.

During our first session we talked about the normal grieving process and how actually – despite the popular acceptance of the stages of grief – there really is not a true “normal.” It’s OK to freak out, and it’s OK not to. She found this very comforting as she was beginning to think that not going off the deep end may mean that she wasn’t a good enough mother or that she was setting herself up for a nervous breakdown.

During our follow-up session, Sasha recalled how “uncomfortable” she was at a recent business meeting when a colleague from a different office asked her during a break how many children she had. A typical question, but in Sasha’s case, a very difficult one to answer.

“Lately, I have been saying just one,” Sasha said. “I don’t tell them about my other child in order to not make them uncomfortable. I have a few times and people are stunned this just happened a few months ago, and they don’t know what to say.”

Still, Sasha was uneasy about her response, feeling it wasn’t an accurate reflection of her situation. But what could she say instead while balancing her need for privacy with the consideration of others?

After some discussion, she came up with a response. When asked about her children, she  decided to respond that she had a living son and a daughter that recently passed away. Knowing this was likely to elicit a sympathetic “I’m sorry,” or “Is there anything I can do?”  Sasha decided to be ready with a positive life message:

“If you really want to do something for me, go home and kiss your children tonight and let your loved ones know how much you care. Try to remember that today is a gift and tomorrow is never promised. Enjoy today, have fun and smile often.”

Sasha felt that with this strategy, she was honoring the truth and at the same time, transforming her pain into a gift for others. That ultimately helps her be able to keep her integrity and enables her to share an important lesson with another person. It is helpful when we are able to, at some point, transform our pain in to power. So many not- for- profit organizations and charities are founded by people doing just that-honoring a loved one who died from a particular disease or reaching out to others who’ve been through the same type of pain.

How many of us have had the experience following the unexpected death of someone close to us – or even strangers such as on 9/11 – that has shaken us to our core? We suddenly feel very connected to what really matters. We go home and kiss our children and don’t scream about the peanut butter smeared on the carpet. Does it really matter that the dust bunnies are taking over or the laundry basket is overflowing? The trees look more majestic and the sunset is awe inducing, “Wow, I am so grateful to be alive”.

And, how long does it take for this to wear off and to fall back into old patterns and habits. Before long we’re yelling at the slower drivers in the left lane. We find ourselves not even looking up from our laptop when our child is telling us about their day. We dodge a loved one’s kiss.

So tonight, when all you want to do is scream at your son to brush his teeth, get frustrated because you, once again, tripped over the mess he left at the foot of the stairs, remember Sasha’s powerful message: Kiss your children. Try to remember that today is a gift and tomorrow is never promised. Enjoy today, have fun and smile often.