“Our job is to make music with what remains.” Itzhak Perlman, explaining why he continued to play after a violin string broke.
If you’ve ever watched a group of toddlers play, you know what happens when one child starts to cry. Some kids clear out. Others stop what they’re doing and watch. Then there’s the child who brings her favorite toy over her crying friend.
As adults witnessing a person in pain, we choose between the same three basic responses: turn away, observe from the sidelines or reach out and help.
This book gives you the tools to reach out to a person in physical or emotional pain with the confidence you can help in the most helpful way. My goal is to help you quickly improve your family’s quality of life, and find more love, strength and hope.
Most books about pain offer ideas about what the hurting person can do differently. If your loved one is receptive, great! You’ll find plenty of terrific books. If, on the other hand, you–the family caregiver–are ready for a change that the person in pain resists, the ensuing power struggles can make a bad situation worse.
This book is about what YOU can do differently. You’ll learn which of your thoughts, feelings and actions lead to the best results. Paradoxically, by focussing on yourself, you may well find a decrease in the intensity of your loved one’s pain.
I’m not sure I would have believed someone who told me you can improve the condition of another without asking them to change. Here’s an experience that radically altered my thinking.
Years ago we rescued an adult chocolate lab named Elvira. She was a wonderful addition to the family–a smart, well trained dog who was great with kids. She appeared to be the perfect dog–until we ran across other dogs on our walks. Her aggression, complete with snarling and lunging surprised and frightened me.
I got a gnawing feeling when I reached for the leash. I reorganized my schedule so we could walk at times we were least likely to run into other dogs.
Then on one midnight walk, I had a light bulb moment. Our lives were being controlled by my dog’s aggression. It’s like we were prisoners in our home, held hostage by the fear of what could happen. There must be another way.
I hired a well-regarded dog trainer and told her the story.
The trainer said, “Vicki, you have two problems. The first is Elvira’s aggression. The second problem, though, is you. Your anxiety fuels her aggression.”
The trainer said that we were not going to try to fix Elvira; however, if I stepped up and assumed calm leadership, my dog would exhibit less aggression. She showed me how. It worked!
Why do I tell you this story? Your family’s story about your loved one’s pain may share similarities to my family’s story about my dog’s aggression.
You may seek out doctors to fix your loved one’s pain the way I hired a trainer to fix my dog’s aggression.
You may feel like you’re living with two different people– the person with pain and the person without pain. You may do everything possible to avoid triggering your loved one’s pain. You may feel like fear holds your family hostage.
Like me, your well-intentioned actions may unwittingly be making things worse–not better.
And, like me, you have the power to make things better for you and for your family.
You’ve picked up this book because you want to do better, and I applaud you. As you think about how you’ve responded to a person in pain in the past, thought, please treat yourself with compassion.
Your desire to help a person in pain pulls against fears generated by your primal brain and worries generated by your thinking brain. These fears and worries that my have held you back in the past do not make you a bad person; they make you a normal person.
The impulse to run away from a person in pain is wired into our brains; it’s part of our fight-or-flight response. After all, the saber tooth tiger that just caused another person’s pain could hurt you, too.
We’re also wired for empathy. We have a biologic impulse to help people in pain just like we have a biologic impulse to learn language. Impulse alone is not enough to master language; we must be taught the actual words and practice the art of stringing the right words together.
While there are many ways to learn foreign languages like Chinese or Greek, there are few resources to help you speak the language of comfort.
That leads to the reasonable worry generated by the thinking brain that says, “I don’t know what to say to make things better, and I know with certainly I can make things worse. Maybe it’s safest to just keep my distance.”
Nothing could not be further from the truth. You do great harm when you stay away. The only thing worse than living with pain is being alone with the pain.
Yet, studies show that people with chronic pain become more isolated over time. Then it’s all downhill as social isolation intensifies physical pain, which leads to more isolation. It’s like a truck going downhill with no brakes.
You have the power to put on the brakes. In this book you’ll find simple, practical steps to help you make a positive difference to a loved one in pain. You can learn to say with calm words and actions, “You are not alone in your pain. I’m here, and we’ll get through this together.”
In the first section, you’ll learn about how your brain works. The biology of pain and the biology of empathy, like height and eye color, are not easily modified. As Lady Gaga sings, “Baby, you were born that way.”
However, biology is not destiny. The remaining two thirds of the book address factors under your control.
In the second section you’ll replace the false stories about pain–“Pain is the doctor’s job, and I can’t help because I’m not a doctor.” –with the truth. You have everything it takes to make a positive difference to a person in pain. You’ll learn The Connection Prescription that shows you how.
In the last section, you’ll tune up your skills that will help you offer words of comfort, strength and hope. This is the meaty how-to section. Feel free to begin here.
I’ve helped many, many families with the ideas in this book, and the improvements occur quickly.
You can reach out to a loved one in pain with:
- More confidence and skill
- More influence and impact
- More rewards
You have everything it takes to infuse your family with more love, more joy and more hope. There may not be a magic wand to make pain disappear in a cloud of smoke. However, when you understand your biology, tweak your pain story and learn key phrases, be prepared for miracles.
© 2015. Vicki Rackner MD All rights reserved.