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7 Hurts That Never Heal

... and 3 ways to cope.

Key points

  • Hurts that won’t heal are rarely discussed openly and are frequently denied. This lack of acknowledgment deepens one's despair.
  • Some hurts that won't heal include the death of a loved one or witnessing them descend into addiction.
  • Sharing one's pain and using it to help others are two ways of coping with a hurt that never heals.

You wake up with a familiar ache in your heart. Sadly, you can’t remember when it wasn’t there.

You’ve done everything you can to help yourself. You started weekly therapy; began journaling, exercising, and watching your diet; and self-help books pile up on your nightstand. And yet, the hurt rarely leaves you. Even if you forget it for brief moments, it returns soon after, a distressing reminder that nothing has really changed. (See "3 Traits That Breed Hopelessness.")

Empty Promises and Reckless Optimism

Hurts that won’t heal are rarely discussed openly and are frequently denied. In our solution-focused world, they are pushed into the shadows or met with empty platitudes:

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“Look on the bright side.”

“Tomorrow is a better day.”

Such hollow sentiments only serve to deepen your despair by trivializing it and not acknowledging your loss. (See "How To Recover When Life Crushes You")

Not All Hurts Heal

The reality is this: Some hurts will always be a part of you. And while they don’t have to define you, they remain a daily reminder of the unforeseen challenges that come your way.

But before we examine how to cope, let’s consider the seven most common hurts that won't heal.

  1. Death of a loved one. The loss of a beloved spouse, parent, or child is perhaps the deepest hurt one can experience. When people you love are taken from you, you struggle to go on. Every day you have the impulse to call them, speak with them, or share something with them—and then you’re reminded that they’re gone, leaving a space in your heart that may never be filled. (See "Death Shock: How to Recover When Someone You Love Dies Suddenly.")
  2. Mental illness. A patient recently recalled the moment he realized his brother had schizophrenia, saying, “When the doctor told me, I didn’t want to believe he was really sick.” Although there are many successful treatments for chronic mental illness, patients often refuse to cooperate: They may drop out of therapy, stop taking meds, or depend on their parents or loved ones to rescue them.
  3. Addiction. Addiction is a particularly cruel affliction because the person you love is still there but is no longer themselves. To make matters worse, someone who is addicted to substances may become skilled at lying to and exploiting those who love them. Unfortunately, hope is often short-lived as they tend to relapse again and again. Witnessing someone you love descend into addiction is a hurt that is truly heart-wrenching.
  4. Chronic illness. When the doctor tells you about your illness, you refuse to believe it. “It’s not possible,” you think. No matter how many times you ask, “Why?” you can't find an answer. So you try to get on with your life as you struggle with the fear that your condition could get worse. For the first time, your life has an expiration date.
  5. Betrayal. A betrayal by someone close to you cuts deep. You have trouble trusting others and push them away because you don’t want to get hurt again. You may choose to isolate or turn away from the world, convincing yourself that you’re better off alone. Betrayal not only makes you doubt others; it makes you doubt yourself as well.
  6. Permanent injury. You have to re-learn how to move through the world. Daily tasks that were once simple now take a great deal of effort. People look at you with sorrow or pity, which makes you feel pathetic and small. You want to wish your injury away, but you’re forced to live with it.
  7. Trauma. Trauma leaves an imprint that endures and can change the course of your life. It may undermine your ability to feel safe, trust others, or move through the world without fear. When trauma is activated, time and space stop, and you find yourself trapped in the feeling of terror that occurred the moment the trauma took place. That terror may live inside you quietly or overwhelm you at any moment.

How to Cope with Hurt

Hurts that won’t heal don’t have to define you. In fact, when they are managed well, they serve to deepen your humanity and foster greater empathy and connection to others. Hurts may remind you that life is fragile, but they can also remind you that life is precious: Many patients have reported that such hurts have inspired them to live in the moment and appreciate life more.

No one is exempt from unhealable hurts. Eventually, they appear in every life. No matter how people present themselves on social media, everyone eventually faces hurts that won't heal. The chances are that they are not posting their struggles, which creates a lopsided view of their lives.

3 Ways to Cope

  1. Turn your hurt into a mission. I’ve witnessed many patients channel their hurt into a profound sense of mission. For instance, a friend who survived stage-four cancer found new meaning in life when he started volunteering at hospitals and counseling families and cancer patients. “If I can offer them any hope, I’ve been of value.” A woman who was sexually assaulted volunteered for a hotline for young women in crisis. Though at first, she struggled, she soon found it empowering: “I discovered that “helping others not only triggers healing in them, but it triggers healing in me as well.”
  2. Share your pain. Isolation is the enemy of healing, so commune with others, particularly those who’ve suffered similar experiences. A support group or group therapy is a wonderful and safe way to practice opening your heart and letting others get close to you. Prayer and meditation will also help you to find meaning in pain.
  3. Keep growing. Grieving your hurt is important and necessary. But it doesn’t have to dominate your life. Don't give it power over you by playing the victim. Acknowledge it and move forward despite what you’re feeling. Be a good parent to yourself by practicing self-care and expanding your creative and social outlets. Though the hurt may never go away, you can bring its volume down by honoring it, embracing it, and moving forward with your life.

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