Coping with unpleasant news!

Last week when I finished writing about Happiness and the acronym PERMA, I truly did feel happy. If we look at the elements of PERMA (Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning in life and Accomplishment) I felt that the writing exercise fulfilled almost all criteria for my happiness. So, I was happy and already thinking of what to write next week, till I got an extremely unexpected feedback to my Happiness blog. I quote the exact words, “Things like happiness and positive psychology have no meaning for me now. These words seem hollow to me. I have been diagnosed with cancer. My life will never be the same again, though I will survive.”

This response was from a wonderful friend. A person, from whom I have learnt many things and whom I consider one of the most positive, lively and sensitive human beings. My first reaction was that she was joking or it was perhaps a whatsapp forward which she had sent me. I called her and she did not respond but mercifully she replied my whatsapp messages and soon I had to accept that my dear friend had Cancer and she was soon to be operated upon. Suddenly I did not know what to say to this person. After this, since Tuesday through this week, my thoughts kept going back to what I can say to my friend and maybe many others like her. How does one help someone handle grief, frustration, the mood swings, the uncertainty, fear, loneliness etc that come with such bad news. I know that my friend, being the kind of person she is, will fight this battle, win it and come out a stronger person.

The first question here was, what do we say to a friend going through such trauma. Asking the person to stay positive is almost pointless because the person knows it but can’t. Showing a rosy picture and downplaying the negative possibilities does not cut much ice either.

American Cancer Society website has some sound advice on what to say and what not to say to a friend afflicted with cancer. is another website with some meaningful advice.

Some of the things that we can say, “ I want you to know that I care about you and am willing to help you. Let me know when I can be of help in some way. I do feel sorry that you are going through this. Anytime you want to talk about it, I am here , please tell me.”

It is important to respect the person’s privacy, not to push the person for more details unless she wants to talk about it. If the person talks about it, listen without being judgmental.

You could  research the disease to find out exactly what that person might be going through and how she might need help in future.

Support the person in whatever way you can but with her consent.

Cancer or some other dreaded disease is of course just one of the sad events that befall us. There can be many more equally challenging or traumatizing events in life. The irony is that people mostly come out stronger once they are through such trauma, provided that it does not break them. So how do we fight a negative event in life.

Viktor Emil Frankl (1905 –1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. When Viktor was in a concentration camp, he observed the behavior of the fellow prisoners and concluded many lessons which later proved to be the basis of his theory of Logotherapy and many books. His best-selling book was, “Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning”. It was earlier published in German language by a different title meaning (Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp). In this book Viktor Frankl chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate, which led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus, a reason to continue living. Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning explores the sometimes unconscious human desire for inspiration or revelation, and illustrates how life can offer profound meaning at every turn.

So what does he say?  In a nutshell, 3 points;

  • People who have a strong reason to live will survive trauma better. So, when we are going through a traumatic life experience if we feel that our life has a meaning, a purpose, a goal we are more likely to come out of the experience alive and even stronger.
  • Whatever, happens to you is not in your control but how you mentally respond to it is completely in your control. This he calls the last freedom which no one can take away from you, that is how you allow yourself to be affected mentally by an event. So, it is not what life throws at you but how you deal with what life throws at you which is important, simply because you have no control over what life throws at you. When you can not change a situation, it is time to change yourself.
  • Suffering is a part of life and we have to learn to accept it as just that ( a part of life itself)

Reproduced below are some of the quotes by this great Scientist of human behavior.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be,complete.
Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
What do the scriptures say:

The Bhaghvad Gita has some interesting lessons on this subject of handling sadness, failure, hopelessness etc;

  • Life is a battlefield, you are here to fight. So you must fight with whatever might you have, irrespective of the result. For a cancer patient, who is uncertain of the result of treatment, it is important to remember that result is not in his control but to fight valiantly, as cheerfully as possible is.
  • Everything materialistic is perishable. Only the soul remains for ever. The human body is just like a home for the soul. The human body is made up of fire-water-air and earth, that is where it goes back again but the soul stays on and is not perished.
  • Lot of events come in contrasting pairs, Light-Darkness, Day-Night, Heat-cold, Joy-sorrow, calm-storm, high tide-low tide. We need to accept both with equanimity. We can not always choose to be only happy or to have only day and not night.
  • Effort never goes waste, you feel miserable only if you focus only on the end result of effort and only the end result motivates you. We must try to enjoy the journey, the battle, the effort and not just the result. Find contentment in the journey, where ever that takes us.
  • Everything happens for a purpose. Every event is a part of a great scheme of things which will unfold. We have to live our destiny

Tony Robbins, the famous motivational Guru says , “ Nothing in life has any meaning except the meaning you give it” , Which in a way is the same that Viktor Frankl says that it is your reaction that matters not what happens to you.

Robin Sharma too has written some interesting things on this subject. He in his characteristic practical style talks about how to turn a bad day into a good one. This is what he says;

  • Perspective: I think that only I am suffering till I see someone else suffering far more than me and suddenly my suffering seems more bearable. Howsoever bad my situation might be, the fact is that it could have been worse. It makes sense to remember that.
  • Looking for the positive part. In almost every miserable situation there might be an opportunity , a positive side to
  • Physical exercise: Helps the body release helpful hormones Dopamine-Serotonin and makes us feel better. Go get some exercise, Gym, swim, cycle, run whatever.
  • Write your feelings. Many times when we feel very down, very miserable and we do not want to talk to anyone, taking a blank page and simply writing the feelings can help.
  • Going out in the nature. Maybe a park, maybe a forest, a riverside or seashore, a mountain. It heals.

Lastly, how do I feel about it?

I think we must remember that in comparison to the universe we are small micro particles. If we are so small, how  can our sorrow be so big.?We may be small but we are not in-significant. Just like, even a small nail or bolt is an important part of a huge machine, so is each living being every micro-organism created with a purpose. The purpose is not known to us but we have to simply live it.

Change what we can but accept what we can’t.

When we were born we did not choose our parents, our heart, our nose, our hair and we made peace with it more or less. We accepted it. Which means that a system created us in a particular way. Now, if that same system is taking our lives in a particular direction why should we complain.  We have no option but to accept life as it unfolds. We may call it luck, destiny, God’s will or a mathematical probability but the fact is that we have no control over it and the only way is to accept it and live on. Keep the desire to live alive and remain as happy as possible.