I was with a friend a few weeks ago who was recovering from surgery. He was hurting, and I suggested he take a painkiller.
“I did that for about three weeks after the surgery,” he said, “but I’ve stopped doing that.”
“Why?” I asked. “Take the drugs! There’s no reason to hurt like you are.”
“Yes there is,” he said. “Because I hurt when I’m starting to over-do it. The pain warns me to stop.”
“Right,” I said, feeling silly, “that, of course, is why pain exists.”
We laughed a bit. But I thought about this idea later. We have physical pain to warn us about something – a headache that signals dehydration and tells us to drink some water or a pain while running that lets the body know that it’s time to slow down. We can push through pain, of course, but oftentimes with physical pain, it just comes back.
But what about emotional pain? What in the world does that signal?
People love to tell me that the degree of grief that a person feels is directly related to how much love was lost. Like it’s some sort of messed-up math equation. I loved Shawn so much, so I’m hurting terribly. But, what level was that love? Did I love him more than someone who was married 5 years but less than someone who was married 20? More than someone who lost a parent, but less than someone who lost a child? How can you even quantify a person’s love, and thus a person’s grief?
And why would you want to?
It’s not some sort of strange contest, where the person with the most pain wins. And if it was, I’d love to lose that contest. I want to remember the love that I had with Shawn, but I’m sick of the idea that I have to suffer equal amounts to prove that I really loved him.
And yet, the emotional pain remains. As much as I want to say that there is no correlation between how much I loved Shawn and how much I am grieving now, my experience proves otherwise.
I was sad about losing my mom. It was terrible. I grieved harder than I’d ever grieved in my life.
But losing my partner was much, much worse. I’m not saying this would be the same scale for everyone – maybe for some people it’s harder to lose a parent. I will just speak for myself.
Losing my mom was like breaking my arm.
Losing Shawn was like having a heart attack.
(As a note, I’ve never broken my arm or had a heart attack, so these physical comparisons might not be accurate in their pain scales. But just let me have a bit of freedom as a writer on this one, okay? I’m guessing almost dying is worse than snapping a limb.)
I’m not sure how to lessen this emotional pain. When Shawn was dying, I remember crying with desperation to my sister-in-law, saying something like, “I wish Shawn had been a shitty husband, because then this wouldn’t hurt so badly.”
I don’t actually wish he had been a shitty husband. But I said that a lot in the days immediately before and after his death. The pain was so bad I just wanted it to be lessened somehow. Even then I understood that my grief was related to how much I loved him.
Now, the pain is always with me. But like my friend who had surgery, it doesn’t hurt with the same intensity all the time. Instead, out of the blue, I’ll have a moment or an hour or a day or a week when the pain spikes.
Maybe the emotional pain is warning me, just as physical pain would. “Take it easy,” my mind might be trying to tell me.
And if that’s true, maybe the healing is similar to physical healing. Maybe when that emotional pain spikes – the kind that makes me grip my chest – maybe that’s the time to let the grief wash over me.
Maybe that’s the time to remember why that pain is so bad. It is bad because I loved so deeply. Because my dear, sweet Shawn: well, he was definitely not a shitty husband.