A journey into openness and honesty… Distilling truths about ourselves, others and life from shared experiences… Learning to live consistently with that truth… Becoming free to be who we truly are…

Archive for the ‘Pain and Suffering’ Category

Mother’s Day joy and pain…

All of us had a Mum… right?
Technically, yes. We all had a mother otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

But having a mother is not the same as having a Mum.

The cemetery

Healesville cemetery is a sacred place for my family. On the edge of a country town it is a beautiful, peaceful location surrounded by trees and views of the nearby mountains.

My wife, Rosie, loved Healesville. Her family holidayed there when she was young. Healesville was my home town. Rosie and I chose this cemetery as our burial place a few years before she died of breast cancer.

My parents are buried at Healesville. The plot Rosie and I bought almost directly faces their grave in the next row.

Mother’s Day

We lost Rosie just a few years ago. Mother’s Day is tough for my family.
Our hearts and minds are still raw. My children miss their Mum.

Mother’s Day afternoon I visited the cemetery with Merryn and Liam (my daughter and son-in-law). We stood in front of Rosie’s grave to remember her, and silently vocalise our feelings of love and grief.

Merryn brought some white roses from her garden. She gave me one to place on Rosie’s grave. I made a hole in the recently rained-on earth and planted the rose upright in front of Rosie’s headstone.

While Merryn and Liam continued to reflect, I turned around to face my parents’ grave. I read the plaque as I have done many times. Seeing my mother’s name, Edna Winifred James, died 12th June 1966, aged 49 years, impacted me as never before.

I was struck with a profound realization
In the 53 years since she died I’ve never grieved for my Mum, not even on Mother’s Day? How could this be??


Mum did not have an easy life. As a young woman she was beset by a condition I also share… depression. Mental health issues were little understood in those days. Depression was a shameful thing; you kept it hidden and suffered in silence. Thankfully her older brother, Bert, saw her struggling and tried to encourage her and build her self-confidence.

But depression was no stranger to Bert either, and tragically he took his own life when Mum was a young adult. I can hardly imagine the extent to which this caused her to plummet further.

Mum was married during World War II. After Dad returned from the fighting, three daughters arrived in succession. Six years later they had a son… me.

Mum’s pregnancy with me was torrid. Shortly after I was born she had a severe breakdown which put her in a psychiatric ward for months. Dad stayed home to work and visit Mum; my sisters were sent away to his brother’s family, and I was looked after by Mum’s sister.

Recently I read some letters Mum wrote to Dad from hospital in December 1957, 4 months after I was born. She was knitting a jumper for me and was so hoping to be allowed hospital leave to have Christmas with the family. I don’t know that she made it.

It saddens me deeply to think of the pain Mum must have felt during those dim, dark days of 1950’s psychiatric treatment. Separated from her family, knowing her children had been farmed out due to her breakdown, must have been incredibly painful.


Mum’s recovery was very slow, if she ever really recovered at all. I spent 2½ years with my aunty; she adored me and raised like a son; no doubt I bonded to her during that time. When I finally returned home, my mother was a distant woman in my life.

Disabled with depression, Mum spent a lot of time in bed or sitting unresponsive in a chair, lost in her pain. The demanding role of raising a 2 year old was simply beyond her.

I have very few memories of my mother from childhood. If she spent quality time with me I remember very little of it.

Mum lived a short life. One Sunday night while playing the organ in church an aortic aneurism burst. Mum literally died of a ‘broken heart’.

I was eight years old at the time.
I’d had a mother for six short years.
But I never really had a Mum.

Life shaping scars

Mum couldn’t care for me after birth and had to give me up. My aunt cared for me deeply, then she too had to give me up. Infants can’t comprehend the reasons for these things. As a baby, this was rejection, not once but twice… first by my mother, then by my aunt. Infants interpret rejection as their own fault. Indelible feelings of guilt and fear of rejection were scripted into the core of my being.

These scars have shaped who I am and still affect me today. Fear of rejection and guilt gave rise to decades of depression and anxiety.

I’ve spent most of my life searching for someone or something to fix me, and fill the deep void in my spirit. Decades of counselling, medication and therapy eventually helped me to manage the depression, but the painful void remained.

I looked to God to fill the gap, but 20 years of commitment to faith tragically reinforced my fear of rejection instead of healing it. I looked to Rosie to fill the void, but no amount of love she could give was enough. Even the love of my wonderful children, and great support from close friends could not get me there.

But the picture is not all bad. Suffering teaches you things you cannot learn any other way; it can build love, empathy and compassion for others like nothing else. That said, I would never choose to suffer, but I am so grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and the people it has brought into my life.

A precious memory

The night Mum died I was at home with my sisters. I remember the look on Dad’s face when he walked through the front door. Before he spoke a word, I burst into tears.

I have other memories of that night. The pastor came around to comfort and pray for us. My sister Glenda held me; the comfort she gave me healed a childhood divide and created a bond that exists to this day.

Most profound of all is a memory from earlier in the evening, before Mum and Dad went to church. After dinner she put me on her lap and gave me a cuddle. I remember it distinctly, but why? Why would I remember something that happened before she died?

Was her hugging me so unusual? I don’t remember her ever having done it before.
Was she motivated by an inner sense that her time was at an end and she wanted to say goodbye?
Whatever the reason, this expression of her love profoundly impacted my young mind. I stored the memory away, waiting for adulthood to bring it back so I could discover the message it contained.

Finding Mum 

My rational adult brain says Mum must have loved me. But for years this meant nothing to my heart.

I knew there was no value blaming her. How could I be angry with a woman who did her very best amidst terrible suffering?  I’ve known that suffering too. Instead of anger I felt compassion, but still no sense of love, or being loved.

I always found it difficult to speak of ‘my Mum’. I felt awkward. It just didn’t fit. It lacked any feelings of warmth or authenticity. So I referred to her as my ‘my mother’ instead.

In recent years it dawned on me how tough life was for her; how incredibly painful it would have been not being able to care for me; to allow another woman to take her place because of the disabling torment within.

I realised she had little or no control over what happened. This allowed an emotional connection with her to start growing. I still have a long way to go.

The message embedded in her cuddle just hours before she died is finally reaching my heart…

My mother really loved me.
I really did have a Mum.

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a time for celebrating Mums. The huge role mothers play in raising children can bring a great deal of joy and fulfilment. It is also very difficult and demanding, with more than a fair share of heartache. But the vast majority of Mums (and Dads) do the best they can.

Mums fully deserve to be celebrated on Mother’s Day.

Be aware of others

Mother’s Day is a tough day for many people. It may seem like everyone around you is celebrating, while you are feeling pain.

Many people, both young and old, have lost their mothers.
Many mothers and children are separated by distance, and fractured relationships.
Many mothers languish in nursing homes, forgotten or neglected by their families.

There are mothers who have lost children.
And women who longed for children but couldn’t have them.

And then there are those who had a mother, but never had a Mum.

Mother’s Day is a tough day for all these people.
Next year, let’s be mindful of how they feel and let them know we care.

A closing thought

Let go of your Mum.

No Mums live forever. At some stage you have to let your Mum go. When you stand by her side in her final days, as much as you want her to stay, let her know she is free to go. Firsthand experience has shown me how important this is.

There are many other aspects of letting your Mum go; it’s a process that begins in childhood and continues through our adult lives.

A vital step is realizing you are a complete person in yourself. Your fundamental value and worth do not come from your Mum, and must not be dependent on much or little she loves (or loved) you. Some of us, even as mature adults, remain stuck in childhood.

The victim narrative of ‘not having a Mum’, and the void it created, has driven me to avoid rejection by pleasing other people. It has relentlessly demanded ‘I do more with my life’ and daily told me I’ve failed. Perversely, it also became part of my identity… being a victim gave me significance, prompting care and support from others.

I’m finally realising I need to leave the victim narrative behind.

The irony is, at the same time as finding my Mum, I’m finally letting go.




Ian James 20th May 2018

© 2018 Ian James, http://www.onlivingauthentically.com


Bright Moments in the Darkness

Times of darkness can give birth to moments of brightness that owe their existence to the very darkness out of which they were born. And the deeper the darkness, the brighter these moments can be.

Losing a loved friend or family member is always traumatic. Losing them tragically adds shock to the trauma. Losing them to suicide is something else again… it leaves you numb and confused, and the darkness is especially dark.

Prior to Jilly’s memorial service I went to her unit to collect some items needed for the service and her burial. It wasn’t an easy task and I was very glad to have Jilly’s pastor, Julie, with me.

As I pulled into the driveway I noticed a young woman with a little boy outside one of the other units. She saw me drive in and looked at me more intently than a stranger usually does. I wondered if this could be the same young woman who found Jilly after the event.

All we knew about the person who found Jilly was that she was a young mum with her pre-school son coming to visit her elderly grandmother in another unit. When she saw Jilly at a distance she quickly ushered her son inside, called the ambulance, and tried unsuccessfully to help Jilly, but it was long past the point anything could be done.

Since that time I have been feeling deeply for this young mum. No doubt she was deeply traumatised by the event, but we had no way of making contact with her, assuming that this was even appropriate.

I then saw the young woman enter the unit where I knew the elderly grandmother lived. Almost certainly it was her.

At this point Julie arrived and we spent time gathering the items we came to collect. As we were about to leave I noticed the young woman was in her car outside the grandmother’s unit also getting ready to leave. A deep sense of compassion welled up along with an urgency to connect with her… this was likely the only opportunity we would have.

Julie and I quickly headed over to her car and flagged her to stop. When she opened her window we introduced ourselves, and sure enough it was the same woman. What followed was very special… Julie and I expressed our sorrow and concern at the trauma she had experienced, and she in turn expressed her care for us having tragically lost a dear friend. We encouraged her to get whatever help and support she needed… if not dealt with, experiences like these can scar a person deeply for life, with long-term destructive consequences.

As the conversation drew to a close I felt moved to say to her, “If you weren’t sitting in the car, and if it was okay, I’d be giving you a big hug right now”. At that she got out of the car and we hugged each other.

It was a profound and precious moment.
The light had broken through and shone brightly in the darkness.


Ian James 21-06-2017

© 2017 Ian James, http://www.onlivingauthentically.com

When it all seems too hard…

The power of music…

I love music that reaches deep within my spirit and evokes strong emotions and new insights. I find song lyrics have the ability to grab my attention, raising thoughts and feelings about key issues in my life.

Songs often bring pain to the surface. The artist pours out words that echo my own heart. I feel the relief of being heard and understood by a fellow sufferer who’s “been there”, affirmed by their empathy and compassion. Knowing I am not alone encourages me to “keep hanging in there”.

Some songs are so powerful and relevant they evoke “light-bulb moments”… they bring insight and understanding, and strengthen my determination to keep working on the way forward.

The pain of suffering…

I know many people (friends and family) who are wrestling with big issues in life… bereavement, relationship issues, divorce, family dysfunction, mental illness, faith issues, overwhelming work stress, to name just a few.

I too face some of these issues… a 16 year cancer journey with Rosie, and her dying 18 months ago, decades of my past overshadowed by depression, 12 years of not working impacting my identity and self-value, wrestling with questions about God and faith…

Very likely you too are facing big issues and have experienced significant trauma and pain at some point.

We all face tough, painful situations and issues in life… unexpected trauma can strike out of nowhere, ongoing issues can plague us for months, years, decades. We can rant and rave against suffering or perhaps choose to accept and learn from it. Either way, by definition, suffering is painful and we avoid it wherever possible.

Ironically, as much as we may hate to admit it, suffering is fundamental to life.
To be human is to suffer… there is no way of escaping this truth

The gift of suffering…

Nobody wants to suffer.

An undeniable reality however is that is that suffering forges character traits and abilities that cannot be built in our lives in any other way.

Compassion, empathy, and the ability to support others are borne out of suffering.
It is impossible to truly identify with the pain of others unless we have experienced pain ourselves.

Suffering develops our self-understanding and skills for managing life.
It grows strength, resilience and patience in ways that nothing else can.

Suffering is a great teacher.
How can we understand joy if we have never experienced grief?
How can we understand peace if we have never been stressed, anxious or felt despair?
How can we grasp the value of relationships if we have never felt alone?
Or the joy of being loved and accepted if we’ve never been rejected?

Suffering sifts the garbage out of our lives.
Suffering helps crystallize what is really important in our lives.
For example, life-threatening traumas or the loss of loved ones inevitably shifts our focus onto what we really value: relationships, our values and beliefs, the things we really want to do with our lives.
Suffering helps us recognize our life is fragile and finite, and will soon be over (perhaps sooner than we expect). It forces us to ask what do we really want to do with our lives, instead of endlessly filling our lives with frantic, stressful activity that leaves no time or energy for following our dreams.

Suffering reminds us that what we normally value in life… material possessions, jobs, money, status… will be worth very little on our death beds. It hits home that our time would be far better devoted to family, other people, making the world a better place, and to truly loving and caring for ourselves.

The most precious gift of suffering is that it provides a path to discovering and grasping a resilient inner peace that is independent of the stress and turmoil in our own lives and the world around us. In fact suffering is probably the only path to this peace.

When it all seems too hard …

Two songs are currently touching my spirit…
They inspire me to grasp my dreams and live them,
to speak out my truth instead of remaining silent,
to no longer allow fear of failure or rejection hold me back.

Watch out… these songs just might encourage and inspire you too, and set you on the path to freedom!

They just might get you through when it all seems too hard…

Sara Bareilles – Brave


You can be amazing, you can be the outcast, or you can start speaking up
I wonder what would happen if you say what you wanna say
and let the words fall out honestly

Your history of silence won’t do you any good,
Let your words be anything but empty,
Why don’t you tell them the truth?

Don’t run, stop holding your tongue,
Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live
Show me how big your brave is

I wanna see you be brave!

Rachel Platten – Stand By You


Hands, put your empty hands in mine
And scars, show me all the scars you hide
And hurt, I know you’re hurting, but so am I
And hey, if your wings are broken
Please take mine so yours can open too
‘Cause I’m gonna stand by you

I’ll be your eyes ’til yours can shine.
And when you can’t rise, well, I’ll crawl with you on hands and knees.
Even if we’re breaking down, we can find a way to break through.
Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through Hell with you.
Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you.

(Song lyrics copyright and courtesy of http://www.azlyrics.com/)

Ian James
Ian + dingo





Addendum 17/05/2016

A friend told me today she went to comment this post but burst into tears and couldn’t do it. She told me about the traumatic situation she’s currently facing … “It was just too close to home and I couldn’t write.”

My wife, Rosie, said to me repeatedly through my years of endless episodes of depression, “This too will pass”. Even though this always proved to be true and each episode did eventually pass, I hated hearing those words when I was in the ‘pits’. It is very hard to hear and accept positive statements about suffering when there is no end in sight.

Many times people tried to encourage me by explaining how suffering builds empathy and character. As much I knew this was true, I still resented hearing it when deeply depressed. My silent response was, “So bloody what!! What I need now is relief from this torment… not some ‘pat answer’ about building character!”

So, if you read my recent post and found the positive spin on suffering difficult because you’re in the midst it, I’m sorry you found it tough. I know all too well how frustrated and angry you can feel when someone not experiencing your pain says how good it will be for you!

Nonetheless I do stand by what I wrote. I just wish it were possible to develop deep empathy for others and resilience in your own life without going through times when you feel like your life is being torn apart.