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Pay attention to the pain

My right shoulder hurts. It has been hurting for a while, like a few months, or maybe a couple of years, or – now that I think about it – perhaps a decade, on and off. I don’t recall injuring it, so I am not exactly sure what is causing the pain, although it’s quite possible that the gazillion times each day I lift things and reach for things and hand out things could be a factor. Parents like myself may be aware that one particular move alone – driving with the left hand while handing items to children in the back seat of the car with the right, repeated daily over years – could cause serious shoulder complications.

I have not been able to pay much attention to the pain over all this time, although I have noticed it every once in a while. To be honest I haven’t had the time or energy to focus on it, nor think critically about it, never mind do anything about it. I try not to blame myself for this, because I know I am doing my best every day. However, I would bet that if I had been able to address it earlier, it would not bother me so much now.

About a week ago, I reached for something and felt a pain in my shoulder joint sharp enough to grab my attention. I stopped what I was doing and thought about it for a moment. What could have caused it? What was still causing it, and making it worse, now? I decided to focus on my shoulder for a full day, to investigate what actions and positions made the pain spike. This was one seriously eye-opening day. I cannot begin to count how many moves, using my right arm and hand, directly agitated that shoulder – regular day-to-day actions such as putting away clean mugs and glasses, lifting heavy grocery bags out of the trunk, reaching for a pan in a low cabinet, throwing my backpack onto the passenger seat as I get into my car, putting on a shirt, and much more. If I had recorded each instance, I probably would have logged one in about every three minutes on average.

My backpack in its new home in my car.

Sure, I may need to go to an orthopedist, and probably will, eventually. But my investigation showed me helpful actions I can take – and am taking – right now on my own. When I reach for something, I avoid the diagonal angle that hurts the most. I put my backpack in the back seat before I get into the car. I found tons of simple things I can choose to do with my left arm and hand instead of my right, as long as I think before I act. After two or three days spent focusing on these actions, the pain is easing up.

People who are grieving often cannot focus on the pain. Maybe there is so much pain that to pay attention would mean shutting down completely. Maybe other responsibilities take focus. Perhaps forms of the pain get put gently (or forcefully!) on a shelf day after day, hour after hour, because there doesn’t seem to be any other way to handle them. Whatever has been true for you is okay, because it is what has been possible. Pain on the shelf generally doesn’t go away, though. It waits there, and can build up over time until it becomes overwhelming and stops you in your tracks -- often suddenly and in ways that you would least expect or want.

Ask yourself if you can pay attention to some small part of the pain of grief that you feel. Try taking a day to notice what makes it worse – actions or inactions (your own or others’), the presence or absence of particular people, things that surround you or things you want in your surroundings, thoughts and comments or the lack thereof, times, places, chaos, quiet, anything. Take stock of the causes you find and consider: What can you do about them?

Go to the pain shelf today, if you can, and acknowledge one item on it. Choose something you can do, in this moment, to ease that one source of pain. Then do it for a day or two or three, and see what happens. It probably won’t turn your life around completely, and you may need more help as time goes on, just as I may need more help with my shoulder. But living with grief is already hard enough, and you may find that any relief, no matter how slight, is welcome day by day.

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