The Hidden, Chronic Pain of Grief

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I have a couple of close friends who have struggled for years with undiagnosed chronic illnesses, and they’ve both shared with me on several occasions how isolating their conditions became because their pain wasn’t visible to others.

In the absence of outward, identifiable symptoms, people either questioned the reality or severity of their injuries, or they were simply unaware of them. If in another’s presence my friends smiled and refused to mention it, then their suffering (though real and debilitating) remained hidden. They appeared quite healthy and normal and even happy — all the while their insides were being ripped to shreds.

This is how it is to be a survivor of a loved one.
This is life in the Grief Valley.
Your pain is chronic and deep and most often, internal.
To show the suffering when it comes just simply won’t work most of the time.
So you hurt and you hide.

My father died two years ago and as it is with loss, lots of calendar milestones are tough. Yet as difficult as birthdays and anniversaries and holidays are, those are predictable trials. You sort of see those breakdowns coming and you prepare for them. In fact, people are usually much more sensitive to your grief during those times; much more mindful of what might be going on beneath the surface. Your discomfort then seems expected, called for, natural in their eyes.

The really horrible moments are those other ones; the random, unexpected, unspectacular times when the pain comes out of nowhere and sucker punches your soul. It might be a song or a word or a time of day or the smell of something on the stove or a place you drive past that rips you open again, that brings the flood of tears, that ushers in the heaves and sobs.

And during many such times it just isn’t convenient or socially acceptable to flatout lose it; at a bus stop with your son or in a staff meeting or paying at the drive-thru or in the middle of a board game with a group of friends. On so many of those occasions, to save yourself the embarrassment or to prevent an awkward moment for those you are with; you grit your teeth, ball up your fist, force a smile and force the tears back down from where they came.

You fall apart in places no one can see — and all the while you look perfectly fine.

I’ve grown to accept that so much of grief is destined to be a solitary road. Even when well-meaning people care deeply and truly desire to share the journey with you, they will never be privy to the frequency and severity of your suffering. This is partly because your loss is so very individual, and partly because you simply never reveal it all to them. You couldn’t possibly.

I would have preferred to never have had to walk this road at all. Traveling through the Grief Valley has largely been a big slice of Hell, but it certainly hasn’t been without its hard-earned treasures too. One of those has been the realization of just how much hidden, chronic pain there is in my midst; of how many of people I cross paths with on any given day might be smiling and silently falling apart.

That kind of awareness doesn’t come until you too have many moments of deeply buried hurt, but once you receive it your eyes see people differently. They look more intently. Empathy becomes easier. Compassion is involuntary.

To all those who will willingly suffer in secret today, as memories and sadness surprise you in the most inconvenient of moments: I see you.

I know your pain doesn’t have to be visible to be real. Be encouraged.

This post originally appeared on JohnPavolvitz.com.

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at .

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