The Privilege of Pain
People always say it gets easier.
This is what they tell you when your mind is so clouded in despair and sorrow that the only way you can possibly cope with the grief is to go numb. Through the haze of dull numbness you can hear people gently assuring you, “It will get better in time,” and “It won’t always be this hard,” and “There will be a day when you don’t feel like this.”
All well-intentioned statements of course, and in the dazed stupor that follows the trauma and shock of losing someone you love, you find yourself clinging to such statements in much the same way a drowning man might cling to a buoy amidst a roaring sea.
As time goes on, however, and the stupor begins to lift, the numbness begins to lessen as well. And then the pain fully sets in. It is a pain unlike anything that can be described, a pain so profound that it cannot be adequately captured by any words in the English language.
In the beginning this debilitating pain devours every waking moment of your existence. There is scarcely a reprieve from the heartbreak and when there is it often feels jaded, unreal, not right. The pain becomes the cloak which you wear everywhere you go.
At first you hate the pain. You try desperately to escape from it, try to free yourself from it in any conceivable way possible. You distract yourself and attempt to numb the raging storm inside of you with alcohol, drugs, sleep, food, travel, books, music, yoga—anything, simply anything you can get your hands on that might even remotely subdue the waves that threaten to exhaust you. And when you cannot dull the pain through any of the above means then you finally succumb to it, plunge into it headfirst. You scream and scream and scream, whether your cries are vocalized out loud or exist only inside of your own mind and heart.
Eventually—after what feels like an eternity—you begin to realize that there is no escape. You realize that you can struggle against the pain all you want, but in the end it is the equivalent of banging your head repeatedly against a brick wall. Deep pain is the price of deep love, and once you start to understand the consequences of that love, something inside of you begins to shift.
The pain starts to become a part of who you are. You carry it with you wherever you go and in all that you do. You carry it with you when you walk outside of your house; when you meet someone new for the first time; and when you see an old friend for the first time since ‘it’ happened. You carry it with you when you go to sleep at night and often it is the first thing that greets you when you open your eyes the next morning. You carry it with you when you are alone and when you are with others, when you attend weddings and funerals and graduation parties. But it starts to become less of a burden and more of a privilege to always carry the pain when you stop fighting it and begin to appreciate its reason for being there.
After some time passes you start to realize that you don’t want the pain to go away, because the pain is the result of love. It is the tangible, visceral evidence of a life that was well-lived, of a relationship that was cherished, and of a deep and abiding love that is enduring throughout all time, surpassing even that transition that we call death.
The pain is not the enemy unless we perceive it as so. It can be viewed as a heavy and heart-breaking cross to bear or we can choose to view it as an honor, because carrying the pain means that we were privileged enough to have had that beautiful person in our lives.
So often when a loved one passes the first thing people tell us is, “I’m so sorry.” I heard this phrase many times after my sister first passed. Again, well-intentioned statements of course; but in my heart and mind I often thought to myself, I’m not sorry. No, I am not sorry about a life that was lived fully and to its highest potential; I am not sorry about a girl who was so passionate and brave about doing what she loved that she put everything on the line; and I am not sorry that I was fortunate enough to have had this miraculous human being as my sister for twenty precious years. Instead of telling me you’re sorry, I thought to myself, you should tell me congratulations. Congratulations, because you were lucky enough to have known such a special and beautiful person.
Where other people see tragedy, I see choose to see triumph. Often this universe works in ways that are difficult for us humans to understand. If we can look closely enough, what might appear on the surface as tragic might actually just be a completed life, a victory in and of itself. People say twenty years is too short, and on the surface it certainly seems that way. But perhaps for my sister—and for all those other souls who departed this Earth at a young age—perhaps it was time enough. Twenty years was just enough for Ally to inspire a legacy, to change peoples’ lives, and to help heal this world.
How we decide to view the pain will color our entire mindset. If we see the pain as the enemy and struggle against it, then we will also see a lot to be sorry about. We will see an unspeakable tragedy. If, however, we view the pain as a privilege—if we view it as an emblem of love—then we may just be able to glimpse the underlying ornate perfection and order that orchestrates all of the events in our lives.
My pain indeed does follow me everywhere I go. But it is no longer a terrifying monster that I need to escape from; it has shifted and morphed now into a comfortable traveling companion. I welcome him when he knocks and allow him to come in, with the full awareness that one day his visits will become less and less frequent. But will he ever go away completely? I think not, nor do I want him to. He is a necessary visitor, a welcome guest in my home. I honor his presence fully when he comes.
People who say it will get easier don’t understand; it’s not the pain that goes away. It doesn’t get any easier, ever—the pain of missing my sister will be just as deep twenty years from now as it is today. What changes is your relationship to the pain. Your acceptance of the pain shifts and you become more familiar with it, until you get to the point where you accept its presence in your life, even welcome it, because you understand that the pain represents the strength of your love. And while the pain may always be there, the love will always be there too—that undying, constant, continuous, pure unconditional love.
I love you with all my heart Allison Lynn Willen- and it is a privilege to do so.