While some don't survive such emotional storms, most of us eventually come through the pain to a calmer place. Working through grief or recovering from a serious depression is not an orderly process. There are days of feeling better and times when feelings of grief, sadness and devastation return. We go back and forth over time, with steps forward, steps back, until we reclaim the daily functioning of our lives -- back to family and friends, back to work and purpose, back to laughter, back to seeing the flowers and the sun and feeling renewed gratitude for all life has to offer.
But we're transformed by the storms of life.
Although my childhood was not exactly typical -- with two life-threatening illnesses and an alcoholic father who was alternately abusive and nurturing -- it felt normal, if not always comfortable, at the time. I loved my family, especially my brother Mike and sister Tai. Because of them, I never felt alone.
The first emotional storms came with maturity and losses in love. The man I loved beyond all reason in college fell in love with and married someone else. And I thought I would die -- or never love again. So I kept my emotional distance from another very good man, stifling his love, hurting before I could be hurt. I was approaching thirty when I finally took the risk of loving once more. He was the man of my mother's dreams: a tall, handsome Catholic doctor. My mother was thrilled. I was so happy. He loved me back! We began to make plans for a lifetime together. Then life happened: an unplanned but not unwelcome pregnancy, the loss of our baby, his coming out of the closet shortly after he turned thirty, the tears, the anger, the devastation. None of this was anything people talked about openly back then. I felt terribly alone.
During a calm between storms, I met my husband Bob, who had been recently divorced, and we chose to love again despite the pain that had preceded our relationship. We struggled in those early days to trust, to fully commit and to take the risk of being vulnerable again. The loving relationship we have built over the years -- a rich mix of love, passion and tender friendship -- is a warm shelter in all the storms that life can bring.
But pain is still inevitable. There was a terrible year - 1980 -- when I lost both parents and my maternal grandmother to sudden death and, the next year, a much loved young cousin to cancer. And there was a time during that period of terrible losses when, despite the fact that I had a loving husband, I felt intensely alone in my pain. I thought it would never end.
But it did and it does. Life goes on. For all the anguish one has felt and will feel again, there are times of sweetness and joy. And the experience of coming through life's storms can make one stronger for the next and more appreciative of life's wonders. We become stronger in the broken places and more compassionate when we see others in pain.
I look back ruefully at a time when I was in my early twenties and was asked to write a magazine article on loneliness. Although I interviewed some mental health professionals and wrote a passable article, at heart, I didn't have a clue. Secretly, I saw loneliness as self-indulgence, as a lack of will and initiative, as a personal failing. What I thought -- though didn't say in the article -- was that people needed to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get busy with life. Would that it were so easy -- as I was soon to discover.
I saw the same attitude in some of the young psychology graduate students and interns when I went back to school and clinical training when I was in my late forties. When patients expressed feelings of hopelessness and despair that some inexperienced young interns were initially inclined to dismiss with a "Get over it!" sentiment, I found that -- having been blindsided by life more than a few times -- I could be with with them fully in their anguish, hoping, at the very least, to help decrease the loneliness of their pain.
My brother Mike, a Vietnam veteran who went to medical school after completing his military service, noted the same phenomenon: that medical students who were young and untested by life could be unintentionally cruel in their abrupt dismissal, perhaps masking fear, of another's pain. Having faced all manner of emotional storms in combat, Mike could relate to patients' pain and fear with warmth and compassion.
My sister Tai found her calling in life in the wake of two major medical emergencies. She had a singularly horrific experience giving birth to her only child. While her child was -- and is -- an incredible blessing, Tai suffered physical complications that led to surgeries a day after the birth and an eventual hysterectomy. She said that she had never felt so intensely vulnerable. Only a few years later, she suffered a cerebral aneurysm and was airlifted to a university medical center for emergency brain surgery. During her long and difficult recovery, she vowed to become a nurse in order to help others through similarly scary and challenging medical experiences. Today, she is a labor and delivery nurse supervisor in a Seattle-area hospital. She loves her work -- and is invariably supportive of her patients in their most pain-filled and vulnerable moments.
Sometimes I think that it's no accident that my brother, sister and I all ended up in the helping professions. Although our life experiences, even within our family of origin, have differed considerably, we've known pain from the beginning -- and have grown in strength and compassion in the process.
And there are instances where a painful experience becomes, over time, something quite different.
The man who broke my heart in college by loving and marrying another never wavered in his loving friendship, even during the stormy times, and is one of my closest, most treasured friends to this day. The man I wouldn't allow myself to love has found love in a wonderful marriage nearly as long as my own. And he remains a steadfast and caring friend. The nice Catholic doctor who came out of the closet later collaborated with me on an award-winning book that has been in print 32 years, through six updated U.S. editions -- a book that has transformed both our professional lives. And while I'll never forget the anguished moment of existential aloneness when my mother's coffin was lowered into the ground and I felt the loss of two generations on either side of me -- my mother and the baby I had lost five years before -- I'm delighted that our family has, at last, a thriving younger generation -- my sister's Nick, my brother's Maggie -- who bring new energy, vitality and hope to our family.
I feel special joy and wonder when I watch my brother nurture his toddler daughter Maggie. The little boy who was beaten and ridiculed when he cried embraces his wailing daughter with incredible love and acceptance. There is safety in his arms -- safety he never knew, safety that Maggie can always count on. His patience and love are unwavering.
What joy there is in holding another's hand, in helping another feel understood and less alone, less fearful, in giving your own child -- or other children in need -- the warm and safe parenting you would like to have had.
What a blessing it is to survive a life storm, to be stronger in those broken places, perhaps with some lingering sadness but with hope renewed and with a capacity to embrace life once again.