At age eighty-three my Dad falls into a coma a few days before Christmas and his time is short. It is Christmas day and I am by his side at the hospital. People in a coma may still possess their hearing so I speak to him. I thank him for being a wonderful father. He loves to hear me sing so on that wintry day in a windowless room with the beeping of the heart monitor keeping time, I lean in close to my Dad’s face and softly sing Silent Night—his favorite carol. My face rubs against his whiskers and I slip back in time to an old memory. As a boy my dad would tickle my face by rubbing his whiskers against my cheek. This time the boy inside me moves my face gently across his chin and feels his timeless touch once more. Eight days later snow falls hard and he is buried. Afterward, my brother and I shovel my parent’s sidewalk and the sidewalks of neighbors. It is more than just a thoughtful gesture. We have to strain our backs and symbolically bury our Dad. Rituals can bring a kind of peace.
If you live long enough or love hard enough you will eventually experience some major loss. Heartbreak is one of life’s “givens.” At such times we struggle to find some sort of constancy in our lives, some toehold to prevent a freefall, some perspective that allows us to heal or at least keep us functioning until we find our bearings. A mistake many people make is to strive for happy moments as a way to undo grief.
But we do not undo grief. Rather we undo our resistance to it and allow it to flow naturally.
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As our sorrow eventually possesses a sweetness it is a sign that we are experiencing—not happiness—but peace. Inner peace is similar to the deeper ocean waters where it is calm even when the ocean surface is battered by storms. When inner peace humbly co-exists with our grief we may discover a depth and appreciation of our life experiences we might have otherwise overlooked.
You Don’t Create Peace, You Uncover It
I stand at the doorway to my mother’s room in the nursing home. I muster a smile before I enter. She is sitting up in bed, morphine pulsing through her veins. Her ninety-two year old body has grown smaller since the last time, her weight dwindling. An aide feeds her small doses of ice-cream but Mom’s mind is far away; venturing to her childhood home, or her piano by the window, or her cozy bed with my Dad beside her. She hasn’t recognized me in over a year. Today will be no different but I always hope.
“Hi, Mom! It’s Paul!” I say.
“Hello,” she replies. “I’m Fran.” She smiles warmly. Mom is always polite to strangers.
The aide leaves. I help Mom finish her ice-cream and I reminisce while she apparently listens to some distant voice, some distant music, some distant calling. I know this is the last time I will see my Mom on this earth. When it is time to leave I hold her hand—the hand that raised me, cooked so many suppers, lifted me when I fell. I can’t kiss her goodbye just once so I kiss her perhaps thirty times. I believe that the spirit of loved ones who have passed often stand by our side, holding us up or calming us down when needed, but we usually do not notice. As I kiss my Mom she is unaware of my touch, her face unmoving, her eyes glazed over. It was as if I was the spirit that went unnoticed. Six days later she becomes the spirit.
How to Find Peace
We don’t find peace by a process of addition—tacking on more coping skills like an addition to our house. We uncover inner peace by a process of subtraction—releasing beliefs or old ways of coping that no longer serve us and in fact block the very peace we seek. Inner peace already exists. We simply have smothered it with layer upon layer of fear, irrational beliefs, or bad habits. There are many ways to release fear and find peace. Let me speak of two ways often misunderstood.
Stop Asking Why
Our rational mind seeks answers. But when we lose something important to us—our health, our job, a relationship, a dream—no answers satisfy. “Why did I get cancer?” we may ask. Or “Why did my spouse have to die?” Or “Why did God allow this to happen?” At such moments we are really asking for an answer to the cosmic why not the logical, scientifically explainable why. When we compulsively seek an answer to the cosmic why we create a never-ending circle of pain. We set ourselves up to never find peace until we first find answers. Unable to settle on answers that satisfy we have no choice but to keep up our exhausting and fruitless search.
Acceptance Is the Answer
The way out is to accept what cannot be changed. Acceptance of a loss does not mean the loss is acceptable. Acceptance is the willingness to no longer emotionally resist reality. It is the resistance to reality that keeps our pain sharp and unrelenting. “I don’t like what has happened but I accept it” is a helpful phrase to repeat. Acceptance is a right-brain concept. The left-brain seeks details and answers, the right-brain has a go-with-the-flow style and it is precisely that style of coping that helps us with our grief. You can enhance the power of acceptance by accepting anything that “goes wrong” during the day. Acceptance is not passivity. If you spill your coffee you will clean it up—but if you emotionally accept the situation you will clean it up with no agitation. By practicing acceptance in this manner it makes it easier over time to be patient of all that goes wrong rather than emotionally oppose the reality of the situation.
Develop a Deeper Understanding of the Power of Positive Thinking
We use positive thinking to counter negative, self-defeating thoughts. It is a tried and true approach. It works best when our fear or pain is low or moderate. However, when we tragically lose a loved one or our life has been drastically upended our pain is so great that we may wrongly conclude that a positive outlook doesn’t work well or for very long. The mistake we make is focusing too much on the “content” of our thoughts when we need to change the “process.” For example, after a major loss we might think this way: “I’m bitter at my loss but shouldn’t I feel grateful for what I still have?” We attempt to use logic to counter our pain. But that won’t work. By having a tug-of-war with ourselves we are creating war, not peace. The solution is to allow each opposing thought to peacefully co-exist with one another. Both are true, at least for now. So a new way of thinking might be “I am bitter at my loss AND I feel grateful for what I have left.” Allow the opposing thoughts to simply “be” without the battle. It is the internal battle that agitates and confuses us and keeps the fears alive. By giving up the internal fight the more rational thoughts have a better chance of prevailing over time, while the irrational thoughts will fade.
Trust in Signs
Three days before my Mom dies I walk into my office building, preoccupied with how she seemed oblivious to my kissing her goodbye days before. I ask my dad for a sign that Mom understands all those kisses.
I enter my office and glance at the two-dozen magazines on the waiting room table. Someone from the night before had organized them all neatly—with one exception. One magazine lays smack on top of others, askew and open to a page. I pick it up and see a full-page advertisement for a porcelain figurine: a puppy licking its mother’s face. The caption reads: “Momma Can Never Get Enough Kisses.”
When you surrender to reality and trust in something mystical, the peace you seek flows within you. You eventually become that peace. And it becomes you. In fact, it already is you—if you would only allow it.
Dr. Paul Coleman is a psychologist, speaker, and author of “Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Other Side of Grief, Loss, and Pain.” He has been quoted in periodicals such as TIME and Spirituality & Health, been interviewed on dozens of radio programs including NPR, and appeared nationally on shows such as OPRAH and TODAY. He can be reached via his website www.FindingPeaceInYourHeart.com
Image courtesy of Pierre Rougier.February 14, 2016