Finding Meaning in Suffering
Ever since the baby was born, Terri never quite felt herself. The weight she gained during pregnancy gnawed at her. The fabric of her marriage was threadbare. Her degree in social work hung cock-eyed and dusty on the wall. She had seen a doctor who had scripted her a second-generation anti-depressant. And now it was as if there were a thin gauze layered between her and the world. Colors were muted. The clatter and buzz of the city dampened. One day, while slicing a cucumber, she nicked her middle finger. She didn’t even notice until she spotted the burgundy stains on her blouse. Maybe she had married Ben too soon. Maybe she should have gone back to school as planned. Maybe. Maybe.
One August day, Terri decided to bike to Lincoln Park. She strapped little Susan into the baby seat and mounted her cruiser. The summer sun scorched. She veered right on Grant off Larrabee. The wind and the heat, the boisterous silence of the city streets, their crowded emptiness, their empty crowdedness, it spun her mind.
Where Grant met Clark, a high curb lipped the avenue. Maybe she saw it. She worked the pedals. The chain turned. The handlebars rattled. The front tire smacked the curb and Terri sailed off the bike seat. Time briefly stalled as she hovered above the madness and then floated to the asphalt with an unbearable gentleness, her mind finally clear.
As per their nightly ritual, Adeline and Arthur sat at the card table playing pinochle, two glasses of scotch sweating atop marble coasters. Back in those days, you answered the phone when it rang. Arthur trod across the room and grabbed the handset. It was Seymour. Arthur crewed with him on weekend sailing expeditions on Lake Michigan.
“Arthur, turn on the television. I think Susan is on the news.”
“Adeline, turn on the TV. Seymour, I’ll call you back.”
Sure enough, Susan was on the 5 o’clock local news with a caption underneath that read, “If you recognize this baby, please call 312–746–6010.” Adeline scrawled the number down on her score sheet.
Arthur dragged the rotary clockwise with his index finger as swiftly as he could. An administrator at the Chicago Police Department answered.
In his typical straightforward manner, he said, “This is Arthur Kaplan. My grand-daughter is on the news.” There was a pause on the line. A detective grabbed the phone.
“You say your grand-daughter is on the news.”
“Is that your daughter’s daughter?”
“I’m very sorry Mr. Kaplan, but I have some bad news.”
Some of my first vivid memories were of my aunt Terri. She visited us when we lived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 1973. We toured the old church together and played hide-and-seek behind the massive rocks in the courtyard. She was spry and playful. My father and his brother felt an effusive, if custodial, love for their sister. But no one cherished her more than her father Arthur, my grandfather. The loss of his beloved daughter was eviscerating.
I wonder if there is any greater pain than burying a child. The confounding dis-order of never beholding the full expression of their being. Life’s singular canvas torn away mid-brushstroke, a work unfinished. A redemptive hope beyond your own life dashed. The horror of it leads us to forget that, in death, the pain is often mercifully transferred from those who suffer to those who remain.
Papa, as we called him, remained outwardly stoic in his grief. He stood quietly in the pain with no umbrella. He was part of what Tom Brokaw dubbed the Greatest Generation, those who grew up during the deprivation of the Great Depression and served their country valiantly. They possessed a steely resolve, rarely showed emotion, and never wore jeans.
Being a consummate real estate man, Papa negotiated with himself in the wake of Terri’s death. If only he had called that morning, been more present, provided more support, insisted she stay in school, protected her better, kept her away from that man, fill in the blank. Inevitably, against his will, he surrendered. He was bidding on a building with no address. Terri had left the bargaining table. And, in this acceptance, a benevolence toward himself cautiously emerged within him, a self-compassion. The emotional boot camp of his loss propelled a type of spiritual evolution in my grandfather.
Recognizing the suffering of another may exist along a spectrum from pity to sympathy to empathy to compassion.
Papa had little patience for pity, which he found demeaning to both provider and recipient. Sympathy may be understood as a lesser form of empathy, a cognitive and emotional acknowledgment of someone’s pain but with no requirement of agency. Empathy is the donning of the emotional clothing of another, but this psychological state has no valence. It can be understood as emotional contagiousness, where someone’s sadness may trigger your sadness while another’s joy may elicit your own joyfulness.
Papa made the full and arduous trek and, over time, came to embody compassion — lovingkindness in the presence of another’s suffering in a manner that actively seeks to alleviate that suffering. He was never morbid. On the contrary, he lived in a state of great expansiveness and generosity. For the balance of his life, he doubled down on love. He was the fulcrum of all family reunions and excursions. He put every child and grandchild through college. Adeline dubbed him Mr. Possible, because he made everything in our lives possible.
I visited Papa once in Miami. It was June, the air hot and wet. Papa woke up early, the rising sun his alarm clock. He strode to the porch, slid the glass door shut behind him and stared out over the vast ocean. I watched him for a long time from the kitchen as he stood quietly, motionless, the sun on his face. Finally, I walked out and stood beside him. He raised his hand and put it firmly on my shoulder.
“It’s Terri’s birthday,” he said softly.
I looked at his glassy eyes still fixed upon the distant horizon. He was too proud to let me see him cry. Pulsating rhythmically on the side of my neck, his hand shed the tears. It was the only time I ever heard him utter her name. Despite the profound love he shared with all of us, the pain was still unspeakable. We filled the chasm of his heart with love’s rushing water, but there remained a damned estuary where the land lay arid and fallow.
When he passed and soared above the vacillations of space and time, my sadness was tempered. He would now know what had previously been unavailable to know, why she had to leave in the manner she did.
In her landmark work On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously delineated the five stages of grief we experience after the loss of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance.
In denial, by pretending the loss does not exist, we decelerate the emotional processing of the overwhelming pain.
In anger, we feel free to express strong emotion without vulnerability. Anger, more socially acceptable than admitting we are scared, allows us to express emotion with less fear of judgment.
In bargaining, we grope for some perceived semblance of control in a situation where none exists. We might ruminate over our interactions with the person we have lost, recall times when we may have said things we did not mean, and wish we could go back and behave differently to alleviate any pain we may have caused.
In depression, panic ebbs, the emotional marine layer burns off and the loss is visibly clear. We often pull inward, recoiling into a cocoon of mourning.
In acceptance, the pain remains visceral but we no longer resist reality and cease our attempts to pretzel it into something it is not.
Anyone who has experienced this process of grief will note that it does not unfold in linear fashion. We are tossed turbulently between these stages. We get stuck, break through and break down while slowly, inexorably, crawling towards acceptance.
In his recent book Finding Meaning, grief expert and friend David Kessler weaves a sixth stage into processing grief: purpose.
At the other end of sorrow’s long, winding hallway there is a door that opens onto the opportunity to channel suffering into compassion, munificence and the betterment of the human condition. This magnanimity may take different forms. Candace Lightner, for example, founded the non-profit Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after her 13-year old daughter, Cari, was killed by an inebriated driver.
My grandfather found purpose in his unwavering commitment to family. In our quest to find redemptive meaning in loss, we make amends, forgive, launch charities, volunteer, and, even, run for president.
Man’s search for meaning, as chronicled memorably in Viktor Frankl’s eponymous text, can be found in three places: in love and relationships, in creative work and self-expression, and in suffering. The last category, of course, is the most challenging. In his 1946 book chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, Frankl takes on Freud in this remarkable passage:
“Sigmund Freud once asserted, ‘Let one attempt to expose a number of the most diverse people uniformly to hunger. With the increase of the imperative urge of hunger all individual differences will blur, and in their stead will appear the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge.’ Thank heaven, Sigmund Freud was spared knowing the concentration camps from the inside. His subjects lay on a couch designed in the plush style of Victorian culture, not in the filth of Auschwitz. There, the ‘individual differences’ did not ‘blur’ but, on the contrary, people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.”
Frankl describes in vivid and moving detail the efforts of select prisoners to provide their last piece of bread or boots or shoelaces to those in greater need. Despite conditions unimaginable in their horror, there were those in the camps that found profound compassion, lovingkindness in the presence of pain, meaning in their suffering.
The grief many of us experience is rarely as extraordinary as the death of a child or the Holocaust. But though our quotidian sorrows are mundane by comparison, all colors of grief are undeniably real and can cause profound anguish. The fracture of a romantic relationship, a friend moving away, the loss of a job, the sale of a family home. These realities, and a host of others, point to an unavoidable and integral component of the human condition: pain is inevitable.
The psychologist Erich Fromm wrote, “To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.” In short, to know grief is to love.
Would we have it any other way?
I likely don’t know you, but I am confident in this. Every single person reading this text has a story that would turn me inside out and make me weep. We are unified in heartache. But ask yourself what will you make of this pain? For your feeling of grief is simply the acknowledgment of your ability to love. I pray you find meaning in your suffering, like Papa.