In a Meridian article called “Are You Ready to Stop Suffering?” author Ann Hinton Pratt documented the fact that 80% of our suffering comes from the stories we tell ourselves (or that the adversary tells us) about what is happening or what happened in the past, and only 20% from the happening itself. That 80% is the part that robs our peace. The stories add 80% more stress to the inevitable sorrows of life when we believe the stories are true or use the stories as excuses not to accept what IS true.
Here’s an example drawn from a universal experience: the death of a loved one. The truth is that our lives will never be the same without them. We grieve and miss the loved one terribly. Those facts represent the 20%. The stories we tell ourselves about the facts might be that we will never recover, be happy or able to function well again. In some cases, we might tell ourselves that we should have been able to keep it from happening, even though that thought might be totally irrational—an example of lies Satan tries to get us to believe. If we forget to look up to God, however, we act out Satan’s lies as if they were true and add the 80% of unecessary suffering. We can lose our peace.
Writing exercises can help us recognize and let go of those negative stories, accept what really is, and find a measure of peace with reality by looking up to God. We often need to write down our negative feelings and sort through them in order to recognize and let go of those which are “story-based” and irrational. The finality of death comes under the category of “truth needing to be accepted.” Accepting the unacceptable may seem impossible at first. A mother named Robynn who lost her young son to suicide said:
The first thing I had to do was accept what had happened. I had to ask myself what was I supposed to learn from the situation. There was obviously a lesson in this for me; what was it? I also had to stop the “what if’s.” The reality of the situation is that what was done was done, and no matter what I did, it wasn’t going to change the fact that he was gone. When I made a conscious decision to accept what I could not change, I was able to shift into a space where I could learn and grow [and find peace].
I’ve found real acceptance possible only with the Lord’s help. Writing helps me reconnect and feel that help. I often talk to the Lord on paper and find Him answering me. A good spiritual exercise is to write a favorite scripture verse, ask myself how I feel about it, how I could apply it, and see what comes up. I believe that it’s not only my subconscious that can speak to me through my writing, but the Holy Ghost, as well. Feelings are often the bridge the Spirit must cross in order to comfort and strengthen us. If I choose to keep my feelings locked inside the castle of my heart, pulling up the bridge, and creating a moat to keep others out, I may also inadvertently keep the Holy Ghost out.
Specific Writing Exercises That Can Restore Us to Peace
During my grieving process I learned that it is possible to find peace by restructuring relationships with loved ones—even after they are gone. How? Writing exercises are one of the best ways. The most helpful I’ve found are detailed in a book I highly recommend, The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman. The authors summarize an effective process for healing from any kind of loss.
The authors suggest that undelivered emotional messages, coupled with feeling incomplete in a relationship, keep grief going and rob our peace. I will summarize the exercises that best helped me unlock and let go of my emotions and deal with my grief. (More detailed explanations are, of course, found in their book.)
Create a list in chronological order of what you consider the greatest losses of your life. (I didn’t really want to do this, but took a deep breath and wrote two pages—starting with loss of robust health because of a severe burn when I was tiny, and ending with my son Brian’s death.)
Create a relationship graph. Draw a line down the middle of the page. Beginning with your earliest memories, jot in the left column the saddest things you remember from your relationship and on the right the highlights and happy times. (In the left column I started with a sad moment when Brian was two and ended with my grief when I learned he had chosen to leave this life. In the right column I listed the highlights, the happiest events, like birthday parties, family trips, and heart-to-heart talks.)
List anything you feel you need to forgive. (I listed things like Brian’s passive-aggressive tendencies. Letting go—relinquishing negative feelings is so vital to restore inner peace.)
List anything you need to be forgiven for in the relationship with the departed loved one. (I listed things like my over-programmed life that left me so little time to focus on him.)
Write any undelivered emotional messages you wished you had been able to communicate. (For instance, I wrote how much I wished he could have known how much I loved him all his life and how much I wanted to be his friend.)
Write a personal letter to your departed loved one, then read the letter out loud as though you were reading it to him or her. (I found this process especially helpful, and somehow felt I was really communicating to Brian.)
I did these exercises over a period of a week and found them extremely helpful. Anything we talk about or record on paper seems more manageable and less threatening or anxiety-producing. The writing helped me recognize that an event has zero meaning until I assign it one. I learned I could really choose how to feel and how to respond to Brian’s death, as well as anything else that has happened. I learned how to look up and to let go.
Continuing the Process
Some of the exercises, like writing letters to Brian, I continue to do at intervals. I often give myself time to write and reflect on “anniversary” days. It feels soul-cleansing and peace-producing. Here are some excerpts from a letter I wrote to Brian at the five-year point:
Five years ago, sometime during the night you had the experience of being ushered into the world of spirits. I wonder what it was like for you. I wonder if you were amazed to learn how much you were really loved. I wonder how you felt about your life as you looked back on it. Along with all the sad, I know there were many good things—helping friends, listening to friends. I know you tried to be true to yourself, honest with how you really felt and that your friends valued that honesty. So did I. I told you once that I wanted to be more like you when I grew up—in those ways. You seemed surprised, even startled.
What was it like for you when you were taken home to the God who gave you life? Did you immediately learn that Jesus was the Lord? Did He greet you personally? Did you feel the Savior’s love for you right away? I know He knows you and loves you. I love you so much and I don’t know a fraction of what He knows about you.
What is it like there for you now? How much progress have you made now that you have nothing to hold you back? You have an environment of perfect love and truth. You have so many progenitors on both sides of the family who were stalwart souls. Surely they care about you. How does that all work on the other side, anyway?
Do you play your guitar and romp with your dog Sheba? Are you busy learning, and perhaps even teaching others by this time? You don’t have to eat or sleep or do any of the chores that are necessary here, so I wonder what life is like on a daily basis. Do you have days and nights? Do you go to classes or teach classes? Do you do service projects for people on earth? Are you a guardian angel to any of us down here? Are you in a dimension where you constantly know what is going on with us, or do you get only an occasional glimpse? Do you know when I am having a hard time? Does the Lord let you visit whenever you want, or only on special assignment? I know I can’t have the answers to these questions, but I wonder because I love you! Mom
Writing is a powerful tool; it has played a major part in my quest to regain emotional and spiritual peace.
Accepting the Purpose of Pain Can Increase Our Peace
We’ve all heard that this life is a school. If that is true then loss and grief must be among the toughest classes in that school! Since the beginning of time people have suffered not only because of their own wrong choices, but also because of the poor choices of those around them and because of the death of loved ones. However, there is purpose, even in the pain, and it is possible to find peace in the midst of it. Brigham Young said, “There is not a single condition of life that is entirely unnecessary; there is not one hour’s experience but what is beneficial to all those who make it their study and aim to improve upon the experience they gain” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 9:292).
Elder Orson F. Whitney said that no pain that we suffer or trial that we experience is wasted—and he lists all kinds of reasons why. (See Improvement Era, March 1966, 211.)
In 2 Nephi 2:2 we read, “Thou knoweth the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.” I stand amazed as my comprehension of the “gain” from afflictions increases. I see that only such adversity is likely to motivate me to mighty prayer. I see that my suffering has propelled me to seek the Spirit, and repent and find a depth of peace I had never believed possible. Adversity has been the means of my choicest experiences with the power of redemption. It has given me a great desire to be instrumental in turning others toward the deepest truths in life beginning with the truth of that redemption.
In D&C 93:24, we read, “And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come; And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning.” Stories that make us miserable surely come from that wicked one. He tells us lies constantly, and if we want to have peace, we need to become practiced at recognizing those lies, discarding them, and clinging to the truth. We can pray to know the truth and ask the Lord to help us each day to keep our mind focused on light and truth. We can look up and let go.
Coming to peace with the past is a matter of being led to see more of the truth of it. We can’t change the past but we can reframe it with light and love. We can choose to learn, then take what we know now and see what was happening differently than we saw it then. Some call this “cognitive reappraisal”—the ability to reframe our thoughts about a situation.
My mother-in-law Elvie is a good example of that process. She had a dad who was brutally abusive when she was growing up. Just in the last few years, Elvie and her brother began researching probable causes. Their interest was first peaked when her brother Nard wrote a history of their family that reminded them that their dad was abused as a child not just by his parents, but by his older brothers as well. (He was the 8th of a family of 13.) They knew that abused children often grow up to be abusers. Then they were reminded that at the tender age of 13, their father was conscripted into the Finnish army (Finland was at war with Russia) and for five years was subjected to severe trauma and life-threatening experiences.
Elvie and Nard learned about PTSD and began to realize that their father was a victim of PTSD in the truest sense. He never received treatment but was simply told to pull himself together and “be a man.” They began to understand that while his behavior was not excusable, it was understandable, and they could find rational reasons to let go of their bad feelings towards him. It has been a freeing experience for both of them. They are so much more at peace about it.
One Last Peace-Robbing Pattern:
Being Careful and Troubled about Many Things
There are many peace-robbing patterns (see Mosiah 4:30), but I will mention just one more: being careful and troubled about many things. Life can be so demanding. We live in such a complex society and every day brings so many “have to” tasks just to keep a roof over our heads, our family fed, the basics covered. How can we remember the Savior “always” in the midst of all those demands?
In Luke 10:38-42 we read: “and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
We know Jesus wasn’t being critical or telling Martha it was wrong to serve, but what if she was stressing over a five-course meal she had decided was essential when Jesus would have preferred bread and cheese and Martha’s presence? How many times do we get caught up in the physical nonessentials at the expense of the spiritual essentials?
Have you noticed that in church we continue to be reminded to go back to the basic essentials: scripture, prayer, temple attendance, family prayer, family home evening? Why do you suppose that is? I believe it is because these are the essential activities most likely to help us remember Jesus, help us remember we are in God’s hands, and help us find peace in a stress-filled world. They help us put aside our being “careful and troubled about many things” and be like Mary, choosing the good part, sitting at Jesus’ feet. Yet they are so often put aside for activities that seem more pressing but are actually of much lesser importance. President Uchtdorf has given several examples in recent talks of doing that very thing. The most recent was his story about a woman who stayed up all night before her Relief Society lesson finishing a quilt she wanted to use as a backdrop for her lesson, the theme of which was “Simplify.”
Let’s summarize from Parts 1-3 of this series how we can find peace in a stress-filled world.
As my dream (which I shared in part 1) illustrates, peace is NOT the absence of physical peril, but it IS the presence of God’s spirit and the reassurance of God’s love. We learn in the book of John that peace is a gift of God made available only through the Atonement of Christ and the companionship of His Spirit (John 14:27, 16:33). Peace is one of the fruits of the Spirit and is inseparably connected with the Spirit.
How can we find peace with our past? We can repent, and we can ask the Lord for a perspective more like His. We can’t change the past, but we can reframe it in light and love as the Spirit teaches us what is more true about it. Writing exercises can be so helpful in this process. Our goal is to simply let go of what’s gone, appreciate what still remains, and look forward to what’s coming.
How can we find peace with our current life situations? When the storms of life are all about us, when our ship is about to sink, we can remember Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and He will say, “Peace, Be still,” and will either calm the storm or calm us and strengthen us to endure it. Perhaps one of the main purposes of our earthly journey is to learn to remember Him and have His Spirit to be with us. It was so interesting to note how many times in October conference reference was made to the sacrament prayer and the covenant we make to remember Jesus and keep his commandments, and the promise that when we do that, we will have his Spirit—the source of peace. I truly believe this is our latter-day “Look and Live” principle, our modern-day “brass serpent.”
We need to turn our focus from our problems and weakness to His strength. We need to look up. One of the best ways to remember Christ is to turn to the scriptures. In Helaman 5:12 we read, “And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.” We can remember that the hardest times in our lives are a literal training ground for humility and can be a powerful motivation to remember Jesus, reach out to Him, and feel peace.
How can we find peace with our future? Trust God. Remember that The Lord is in charge and that we are in His hands. Jesus is always there, knocking on the door of our hearts, and when we remember Him and turn to Him He will help us find peace and deliver us from grief, fear, sorrow, and pain. We can let go.
In John14: 27 Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” With all my heart I witness that regardless of the turmoil in the world peace is possible through keeping the Savior and His promises foremost in our minds and actions. That process brings the Spirit. I keep returning to the truth that peace is not the absence of trials and troubles, but the presence of the Spirit.
In Helaman 5:47 Nephi and Lehi were delivered from bondage when the walls of the prison fell. The multitude repented and found faith in Christ, and heard the Father’s voice from heaven saying, “Peace, peace be unto you because of your faith in my Well Beloved, who was from the foundation of the world.” Repentance means looking up and letting go. Whenever we do that, remember Jesus and show our faith in Him, we too can know that peace.
Author note: My book Trust God No Matter What! details my spiritual journey and discovery of these principles and may be a helpful resource. Also, if you know someone whose life has been impacted by the suicide of a loved one you can help them find “the peace that surpasses understanding” by pointing them to one of the following: If they are LDS, direct them to After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Faith to Go On. If they are not LDS, direct them to: Finding Hope while Grieving Suicide: Opening Your Heart to the Healing Only God Can Give. For more information about these books, visit www.darlaisackson.com.