Creating Purpose From Pain

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” —Viktor Frankl

It’s ok to be sad or mad. Grief and anger are those steaming piles of shit in life that become the fertilizer for your garden. What becomes of your compost heap? What grows in your garden on a cloudy day?

A small reflecting pool at Hui Ho’olana

At a time in my life when I was feeling sorry for myself, I read the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Vicktor Frankl. I would come across his work again and again. Anxiety, depression, cancer, addiction, suicide…we all have to deal with tragedy. I am not special in that regard. What is special, is finding people that choose responses which create purpose from their pain, rather than suffer endlessly. There is a difference between pain and suffering and there is plenty of good writing about it, such as from Psychology Today. Author Judy Tatelbaum, who writes prolifically on grief, says “Though we may not always be able to avoid pain, we can choose how much we suffer.”

A moment of clarity for me in Molokai.

Dealing with some life transitions, I decided to attend a retreat in Molokai. Although its taken me a year to process some of my emotions from that week, it took only a few moments of conversation with Kathleen to feel that I already knew her. I recognized the “stiff upper lip” and use of humor to squelch what might have actually been bothering her. We were attending the same retreat – to take a break, connect with like-minded women and learn some tools for re-imagining our lives going forward. “Were you raised by a military officer?” I asked, out of the blue. Yes. So was I, and coached to “suffer in silence.”

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children

After getting to know Kathleen a little more, I knew she embodied the qualties of this verse from “The Invitiation” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, (which we were introduced to at the retreat.) A cancer survivor, wife and mother of four, Kathleen did more than feed her family following grief and despair. Kathleen lost her mother and four of her mother’s siblings to gastric cancer. Kathleen, two of her brothers and two of her children also inherited the genetic mutation for gastric cancer. Kathleen had a gastrectomy and several other cancer mitigating surgeries, then shepherded her brothers and children through the same decision making and treatment processes that would save them. Her story is sobering, but uplifting. Some wonderful ways that Kathleen found purpose in her pain include:

  • Development of the Recovery Bound Journal – from her personal experiences in navigating cancer healthcare and subsequent interviews with medical professionals, Kathleen learned what information to secure and how to organize it. She marketed this tool to help other people retain their sanity while going through the same process.
  • Co-founding of on an on-line business called Send Well Wishes and the discovery/incorporation of I Heart Guts, the Recovery Bound Journal and other handy hospital stay items into gift baskets. I have gifted from I Heart Guts and Send Well Wishes with grateful results.
  • Creation of the “I’m Still Very Sad” button – although born from the loss a brother to suicide, it became a productive and meaningful tool for communicating within her family. It openly acknowledges ongoing grief, making it more acceptable to talk or not talk about it.
  • Using her humorous story telling skills in public speaking.

When I last communicated with Kathleen, she had made the decision to close her business. Her current adventure is the adoption and training of a therapy dog to visit people in hospitals. She recently sent me a couple of the “Sad Buttons.” Thank you, Kathleen, for reminding me that sadness is not the same as suffering. What are you doing with your sadness?

In memory of my Mom, who I still miss very much.

14 thoughts on “Creating Purpose From Pain

  1. Ah sadness, it may be an uncomfortable guests, but it is as welcome as guest as happiness or any other emotion that arises. I want to live life with a full colour pallet and this means holding all the colours, allowing them to blend in this painting of life.

    Thanks also for sharing your reflections a year after the retreat. How humbling and honouring to see that our work still lives in your friendships and in your musings.

    Love to you, Tania


  2. Tracey, I got goosebumps as I read the quote you selected from The Invitation. I am still sad even though I was not close to my dad who died almost a year ago. Somehow his transition is linked with mine as I continue to shed my career-driven personhood and take stumbling, and sometimes purposeful, steps into this stage of life I am now in. And every day, I get up and “feed the children” within me. Sometimes well, other times not, but it is the being here that matters.


    • So great to hear from you Betty! Yes, the career-driven person, as well as the care-taking daughter, are the roles I’ve been transitioning from as well. It looks like you are making progress with your new home with Lee.


  3. “It took only a few moments of conversation with Kathleen to feel that I already knew her.”
    I understand this feeling — it is both rare and exhilarating!
    This is a very powerful post, with many gems of wisdom.
    Thank you for sharing it with us.


  4. I think Kathleen is a badass and so are you for going to a retreat to help heal some pain. I do love this quote so very much, “Though we may not always be able to avoid pain, we can choose how much we suffer.”


    • Well, I was pretty proud of myself for travelling over several time zones, by myself to hang out with a bunch of strangers…..but they were badass strangers and now friends. I love this quote too (obviously) and thank you!!

      Liked by 1 person

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