Sharing our pain isn’t self-pity. It’s about making each other feel less alone

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“For the first time, in a long time, as human beings, we are really seeing one another,” Meghan Markle wrote in The New York Times.Credit:AP/Matt Dunham

https://www.smh.com.au- Samantha Selinger-Morris Lifestyle writer

How do you break a lifelong, and secretly debilitating, belief that you can’t – shouldn’t – share your deepest pain with others? How do you cure yourself of the unshakeable fear that if you spoke about those moments, when your cheeks are sunken and you feel desperately alone, your friends might just plain not care, or set you off on a sputtering filibuster of self-pity?

They’re the questions I never thought to ask myself.

But, then, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex wrote, on Wednesday, about the “sharp cramp” that led to her miscarrying her second child in July, in The New York Times, and the grief that overtook her and her husband Prince Harry, in the wake of it.

She urged readers that now, more than ever – with so many of us isolated, grieving and fearful, as a result of the pandemic, racial protests, and political strife – we need to “share our pain” with each other, rather than suffer in silence.

“Sitting in a hospital bed, watching my husband’s heart break as he tried to hold the shattered pieces of mine, I realised that the only way to begin to heal is to first ask, ‘Are you OK?’” she wrote. “Are we? This year has brought so many of us to our breaking points.”

It has. And her words reminded me that, for many of us, the stress of the pandemic has also broken many of us, in the best way, of a lifetime of feeling we need to keep our suffering to ourselves.

Unlike the Duchess, I wasn’t able to reach out to others, beyond my husband, for help in carrying my loneliness, when I miscarried nine years ago.

I was sitting alone in my bathroom, with my two small children garbling away in the next room, and my husband away on business, when it happened.

I felt a moment of clinical bemusement – “Huh, I’ve never experienced this before” – before feeling struck by a moment of breathtaking aloneness, as though I was standing in a cave, naked, in the biting cold. I shared this grief with no one, except my husband.

Instead, I behaved as though nothing had happened. When the pain of miscarriage had begun, I participated in a photo shoot for work (telling no one), and, when the pain got worse, and I had to call a close friend, to cancel a play date, I mentioned the reason, that I was miscarrying, off-hand, as though I was speaking about some dry cleaning I had to pick up.

Meghan Markle has written an emotional essay for the New York Times revealing the heartache of suffering a miscarriage

I felt a twisted sense of pride – I had felt this for as long as I can remember – that I didn’t need anyone’s help, or empathy, to keep going.

When friends would ask about pain they knew I might be feeling, about, say, my father’s death, I overwhelmingly knocked them back, and turned the tables: “It’s bad, I’m not going to lie, but some people have it so much worse,” I’d say, with a wave of a hand. Fearing that, were I to bear my raw pain, they might look away in discomfort – or I’d start coming apart, like King Lear, unhinged – I moved on to ask about what they were going through.

This worked, for about 30 or so years.

Well, sort of.

There was just one problem, besides my feeling, sporadically, something like the battle-scarred soldier, in JD Salinger’s story, “For Esme – With love and Squalor”, who “abruptly, familiarly, and, as usual, with no warning… thought he felt his mind dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack”.

I developed a little habit of character assassination, in times of extreme overwhelm and stress. Of friends who weren’t magically calling then and there, to ask how I was doing – when, suddenly, I was desperate for them to, though I had long robbed them of the knowledge that I needed their empathy – I’d let rip to my husband: “They’re so selfish! I’m always there for them. The least they could do is call me!”

Then the pandemic hit. And one of my oldest friends asked how I was. Repeatedly.

“Not great,” I said, plainly, a few months ago, after fobbing her off a few times.

This was completely out of character, for my friend to keep asking. Normally, she’d ask once, and if I responded with any details, she’d back away, as though she’d touched a stove. She was uncomfortable sharing her feelings, and, for the more than 20 years we’d been friends, had never shared any account of naked personal suffering. A year and a half ago, or so, I more or less stopped calling her, as I’d become overwhelmed by the imbalance that I’d nurtured for decades: my always asking, and inquiring, about her work struggles, while downplaying my own.

But, this time, she wouldn’t let up. And so, finally, worn down by the stress of the pandemic, I put down my armour. I spilled, about how low I had sometimes felt, during this overwhelming time. (The usual culprits: uncertainty, isolation, and the strain of parenting children through it all.)

Not only did my friend respond by sending me a care package, but she repeatedly called, and, once we’d begun speaking regularly again – with a new, equal measure of empathetic giving and taking – she revealed to me painful experiences from her childhood, and the revelation that the pandemic had completely upended her certainty about what she wanted out of life. With her work under threat, for the first time in her life, she said she wanted to spend more energy on her relationships, instead of single-mindedly pursuing her career.

I have never felt closer to her, and could weep, with gratitude, over this renewed friendship, and its new depths.

We’re far from the only people for whom the pandemic has unleashed a new willingness to share pain, and the immense comfort that comes with it.

Amid the more than 1,400 people who commented on the Duchess’ piece was one woman in her 70s, Mima, who wrote of having spent the bulk of her life feeling “shame” and that “there was a need to apologise if something actually led to tears”. But, the “unimaginable circumstances” of the pandemic – mass death and sickness, the inability to hug her grandkids, isolation, and the knowledge that “we ourselves are slipping into the inevitable, downward natural days in our lives” – inspired her to write about her struggles.

“No, we have not been OK,” wrote Mima, who said she is a nurse. “To hear, ‘Are you OK?’ in these days could represent the kindest words anyone could offer many of us.”

Many wrote kind notes, in response.

“You put into words exactly as so many of us in this age group feel,” wrote one woman, named Deb. (“It is heartening to know we’re in this together to a point,” wrote Mima, in response.)

Still, another woman, who said she had been raised by parents who’d survived the Depression and taught her that “tears and ‘negative’ emotions were not allowed”, wrote: “I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to cry, because I’m not a frontline worker dealing with sickness and suffering.”

Until I read her comment, I realised I’d been feeling that way, too.

But now I see that there’s a gift in revealing our suffering, with each other. It isn’t self-pity. And it isn’t ingratitude. It’s about making each other feel less alone. I’ve always felt that this is among the most important work we can do, while we’re here. Finally, I understand more fully, how I can do it better

Samantha Selinger-Morris

Samantha Selinger-Morris is a lifestyle writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

 

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