Pain, Sorrow and Emptiness

A former student of mine came in to see me the other day. She asked if we could talk, so invited her to sit with me at my desk. Before a word was said, tears began streaming down her cheeks. Pain shone in her eyes. I asked what was wrong. She struggled to speak.


I’ve known this young lady (I’ll call her Maria) going on two years now, since she was a student in my economics class. She’s sweet and polite, one of the most respectful students I’ve ever had. She’s a smart and pretty young lady who always seemed to me to have more going for her than most.

Hidden Secrets … Abuse, Pain, Depression

So why was she sitting at my desk, tears flowing, pain so clearly apparent in her eyes?

Maria has a secret.

She grew up with neglect and abuse of a kind that makes decent people want to meet such parents in back alleys with baseball bats.

Through gasps of tear-filled pain, of an intensity that was heart-breaking, she told me how wonderfully things were going … externally. For years she had been living on her own, bouncing from one friend’s house to another, rejected by her family for telling them the truth about one member of the family who did unspeakable things to a little girl for far too long.

A school counselor was told. Child Protective Services was notified. An investigation ensued. Prison time was served. And the family blamed Maria.

As she cried and gasped for breath as she spoke, she told me about the turmoil she feels at missing a family that doesn’t deserve to be missed and about external circumstances that really were pretty wonderful, all the while feeling utterly sad and empty and depressed.

Bright and Sunny Outside, Dark and Gloomy Inside … and Confusion Throughout

Maria didn’t understand why she felt the way she did, given the recent positive developments in her life. She was torn and confused and was hurt and angry and felt like there was a hole that tore right through her soul, ripping into her guts, tearing out her heart, leaving her empty, vacant, hallow, incomplete and guilty that she felt that way.

I know because these were the words I put to the pain in her eyes as she spoke. She nodded as I spoke them. And as I spoke them her eyes seemed to affirm the words used to describe the feelings as though the words resonated with the pain that scratched and scraped at her insides.

My Dilemma

I knew I would have time for one, maybe two suggestions before the bell would ring and she would have to go. I thought about what I could say to her.

I could have spoken words of encouragement. I could have told her how wonderful a young lady she was, that life will get better, that she has the capacity to overcome anything, that the human spirit is boundless, that she will overcome. But I didn’t.

I could have commiserated with her. Let her pour out her heart, emptying it before me in a sort of sacred or solemn acceptance of her sorrow. Such empathic listening, reflecting her sorrow in my compassion for her pain can be very cathartic. But I didn’t do that either.

I knew I likely wouldn’t see her again for a couple months … or more. Words of encouragement or an empathic ear would likely have helped her feel better for a few hours or a few days, but nothing would have really changed for her. Maria would still wake up empty and sad. The day after that, she would wake up again feeling the same. Every day would be filled with pain-distracting activities. But the underlying pain would still be underlying.

Two thoughts came to me instead.

Click here to see what I told Maria to help her find some semblance of happiness today, and how she can develop long-term happiness in the future …

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