I had hip surgery a couple of days ago, and before I left the hospital my doctors and nurses repeated one thing a dozen times: stay head of the pain.
What they meant was that I should take my medications before I felt like I needed them, but I couldn't help thinking what a rare situation I was in. It isn't often that you get a heads up when something is going to hurt, much less a cure that fits in the palm of your hand. It got me thinking about all the pain that we can't stay ahead of, the pain that smacks into us out of nowhere like a meteor, shattering our lives and blasting us with aftershock.
When we lose someone, or fall into a deep depression, taking care of ourselves can feel impossible. But knowing that suffering is a part of life, and that some days (or weeks or months) will be harder than others, we can do some prep work. So while we may not always be ahead of the pain, we can have a plan for taking care of ourselves when it comes. Here are four suggestions for making it through difficult times:
1. Be gentle with yourself: surround yourself with things that make you feel calm, nurtured, comforted, and safe. Start paying attention now and keep a list, so that you have it ready when things get tough. My list includes: meditation; getting outside; petting my dog; reading Anne Lamott, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh; listening to music; dancing; wrapping myself up in heavy blankets; and lighting candles.
2. Reach out. Have a list of people you feel comfortable calling when life gets hard. It doesn't have to be a long list, just a few friends and/or family members who will listen when you cry without trying to fix it. People who will tell you that you are not alone.
3. Be present. Making space for your pain will help you identify your emotions. This is hard to do, because when we are hurting we seek distraction. But ignoring or pushing down our pain means it leaks into other areas of our lives. If we can be patient with our pain and give it space to breathe, we are likely to move through it more peacefully, with less collateral damage.
4. Look for changes, no matter how small. Write them down if it helps. Grief, depression, anxiety--these things are not the same everyday, and taking stock of the changes will remind you that nothing is permanent.