Sometimes the emotional scars of living become so wrapped up in our identity that we cannot imagine life without them. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to process emotional trauma. In fact, I would say this is one of the great challenges of life that we will all be faced with sooner or later. Make no mistake—I’m talking about death, divorce, injury, disease, abuse, a breakup, and you can fill in the blank. Nothing can eradicate the pain of loss, but wisdom can make all the difference between getting stuck in the past and finding the strength to move forward.
I’ve transcribed a beautiful clip in which former US Navy Seal Jocko Willink addresses the topic of emotional pain like only he can. (You may remember him from his July 4 feature last month on discipline equals freedom.) In the clip, Willink responds to a man who wrote-in about losing a child—obviously one of the worst traumas anyone could ever go through. Much of Willink’s insights on pain is relevant to everyone. For example, he analogizes pain to waves, and I can think of no better metaphor. No matter how absolute and all-encompassing pain may feel at times, it is not the absolute truth. It is a wave—a true but partial expression of the sum total of who we are. I’ve never experienced the loss of a child, and I can’t imagine how difficult that is. But one thing I do know from experience—the more courage with which I “ride the wave” of whatever it is I’m going through, the faster it lets up. And what emerges from that process is a stronger, more compassionate version of myself.
My wife and I suffered three weeks of turmoil, which included losing a child. How do I expedite that moment when we pick up ourselves–basically how to push through?
So the pain that’s going to come, it’s going to come in waves. At first, you won’t even notice that they’re waves because all the waves are going to be so close together, it’s going to feel like you are drowning in sorrow. You’re not going to get any air, and you’re not going to be able to escape that sadness.
That’s what the waves feel like at first. And then at some point there’s going to be a little break, just a little break. Just a little bit of light in the darkness. Something is going to make you smile. Something is going to make you laugh. Something is going to show you just a little bit of light.
And then another wave of pain is going to come back again, and it’s going to be strong, and you won’t have any control over it. All of a sudden, you’re going to be just crying uncontrollable. You won’t be able to say, “No, no. I’m in the light now. I’m smiling right now. I’m not going to go back there.” No, you’re not going to be able to control it, and that’s scary. You’re at the mercy of this ocean of sorrow.
But don’t let that scare you. Don’t let that scare you ’cause I’m telling you that that wave is going to subside again, and this is going to go on. It’s going to go on, and the waves–they will become weaker. And what you need to realize is just because the waves are becoming weaker, this doesn’t mean that you love your child less or you miss them less or that you aren’t crushed at their passing. It just means that you’re starting to be able to deal with it, which is what you’re supposed to do.
When you feel a little bit of a break, what you can do is you can row the boat. You can row the boat, and what I mean by that is start doing something productive to get your mind moving forward. Let’s sort out the drawers in the bedroom. Let’s vacuum. Let’s do something productive. If there’s something that distracts you, that’s fine. Do it. Let there be some calm in the water.
As the calm comes, also you’re going to find moments where it’s like you can have things that are going to bring all of the waves. And that’s OK, too. Bring on the waves. Go look at the pictures. Write down the memories. Read the letters. Read the notes. Read the emails. Remember, and then there’s that standard service. You’re going to do the memorial. You’re going to do the burial.
And when that’s over, let a little bit of more time go by. Give yourself another week of washing around. Of feeling that sorrow. Of letting the waves toss you around in the ocean.
But after another week, what you do is you go and you write a letter. You write a letter to your child, and you explain to them–explain to them how much they mean to you. Explain to them how heartbroken you are that they are gone, and then explain to them why you are going to carry on. And explain to them how in losing them, you have learned without a shred of doubt, how truly precious life is. And that they have taught you the immeasurable value of your own life and your family’s life.
And explain to them that you know. That you know that they loved you, and that you know that they would want more than anything for you to be happy and productive and impactful in the world. And explain in that letter, what you will do to make them proud by how you live your life.
Then take that letter, go to their grave, and read it to them. Then cry and kiss their soul. Tell them that you will see them on the other side. Then go–live your life. And those waves are still going to come, and there’s going to be pain, and there’s still going to be sorrow, but you go and live your life. Live it well. And make them proud.