Understanding people who are in pain and sorrow


Even with the best intentions, we often say the wrong things to people in pain.

“When Jan’s husband died, all her friends overwhelmed her with advice on how to get through.”

“Jan would listen politely but think, “What do you know? Your husbands are still alive.”

The above is a true experience related by a client of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, psychiatrist and author of the book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through Five Stages of Loss.

Dr. Kubler-Ross recognises the fact that a person whose loved one has died can have a reaction that appears overblown to us. To them “the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense…we wonder how we can go on.”

There’s usually an outpouring of sympathy when someone loses a close relative but It’s not the same when somebody “just” had a breakup or lost a pet, observed Dr. Guy Winch, author of How To Fix A Broken Heart. The pain can be just as intense, he asserts. Yet the sympathy from those around them can turn to irritation when the sadness appears too prolonged.

Understanding Anger
Not all of those in mourning are angry. But many can get angry at many things. They will be angry at the doctors, they can be mad at themselves for allowing it to happen, they can be angry at the deceased for dying. Dr. Ross Kubler-Ross knew some faithful Christians who got angry at God and those who comfort them with talk about “God’s plan.”

Their anger “does not have to be logical or valid.” But getting angry when grieving is not always bad, she reassured. She wrote, “Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate, the more you will heal.” Anger, Dr. Kubler-Ross says, gives “a temporary structure to the nothingness of loss.”

I think that being angry somehow gives us a sense of control. Loretta Graziano Breuning, the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, explained that a bad feeling produces a lot of the brain chemical cortisol. It feels so uncomfortable that the brain subconsciously urges us “to do something” to feel better. Being angry at people gives us a feeling that we can do something about the void.


People going through something can feel sad for a long time. The prolonged sadness can be a form of depression. It is characterized by a loss of appetite for food, for pleasure or life itself.

Dr. Kubler-Ross noted that “Our society seems to be involved in a ‘stamp out depression campaign.’” She wrote, “Most people’s reaction to sad people is to try to cheer them up.” “A mourner,” she advised “should be allowed to experience his sorrow and he will be grateful for those who can sit down with him without telling him not to be sad.”

The Upward Spiral

Dr. Kubler-Ross counsels that we must allow people to go through the natural process of grieving. But the people in pain must protect themselves, too. Kubler-Ross wrote, “Treating depression is a balancing act. We must accept sadness as an appropriate, natural stage of loss without letting an unmanaged, ongoing depression leech our quality of life.”

The last stage of the grieving process is acceptance. Kubler-Ross said, “Acceptance is not about liking the situation. It is about acknowledging all that has been lost and learning to live with that loss.”

Different people may have different ways of rising from the ashes. One of the ways suggested by neuroscientist Alex Korb in the book The Upward Spiral is for people to set goals and make decisions. He said that pursuing goals releases brain chemicals that can lift us out of depression.

When my son was crushed by the biggest regret in his life, my advice to him was to try to become a winner again and not remain as a wreck. So, I sat down with him to help decide what new dreams to run after.

I was reassured when my son said he’s accepting his new reality by wishing the best for his ex-girlfriend. “Let’s just pray for her happiness,” my son said. I believe the attitude is helping him break the cycle of desolation.
This is what mudita is all about. Mudita is the Buddhists’ practice of sympathetic joy. They wish happiness for people close to them, for people who are “neutral” and for people who “cause difficulty.” If practiced faithfully, mudita can be an “inner wellspring of joy,” wrote Barbara O’Brien in the ThoughtCo website.

Reinventing your life

Dr. Ronald A. Alexander has helped a lot of clients to transition from unhappiness to well-being. In his book Wise Mind, Open Mind, he said that people don’t want to move on with their lives because they are scared of a life that has become unfamiliar. They also dread how regret will haunt them every day. So, Dr. Alexander reminds us that “with loss comes rebirth.”

He advises a reinvention of the self through what he terms as “creative transformation.”

He wrote, ”The secret to successful reinvention is knowing that you don’t have to greet change with apprehension and resistance, focusing on the potential for suffering, because if you take that route, you experience the very suffering you’d hoped to avoid. When it’s time for change, whether you’re losing a loved one, your perfect health, the job you loved…you have the opportunity to make your life even better than it is, as unfathomable as that may seem at first.”

This is a very moving story from Dr. Kubler-Ross’ book:

Keith’s son Allan was gunned down by a gang member and the young offender was sentenced to life. Five years later, the hearing for parole began. Keith was angry again at the possibility that his son’s killer would be forgiven and set free. But the parole was denied and when Keith saw the tears of the shooter’s father, “Keith realized there were victims on both ends of the gun.” He gradually developed sympathy for the other father who must be feeling terrible having a young son in jail.

“Over the next few years, the two men formed an alliance to help gang members stop the violence and find their place in the world. They went from school to school in the inner city with their story.”
Dr. Kubler-Ross concluded, “little by little, we withdraw our energy from the loss and begin to invest it in life.”

“We can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections, new meaningful relationships, new interdependencies. Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve.”

Habits of a Happy Brain by Loretta Graziano Breuning
How to Fix A Broken Heart by Guy Winch
Mudita: The Buddhist Practice of Sympathetic Joy by Barbara O’Brien in ThoughtCo website
On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb
Wise Mind, Open Mind by Ronald A. Alexander

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