Cactus Heart, found by my Aunt June on her Texas ranch last week

I’ve long loved the idea that we connect most deeply with others when we meet in our broken places, admitting we’ve all got cracks and dents: shattered dreams, broken hearts, wounded spirits, tired bodies. A full, well-rounded life requires knowing and allowing for both gladness and sadness during our time on Earth. No pain, no gain, right? There’s just one problem. In our culture, exhibiting joy is perfectly acceptable and encouraged, but revealing pain is a far trickier task.

My boys have taught me so much about pain management, reminding me that everybody hurts, but in so many different ways. Case in point: on Monday, three-year-old Tru tripped in the hallway, stubbing his toes. He cried briefly, gave me a snuggle, then bounced off to play. Later in the day, I discovered two of his tiny toes were practically purple! I moved them around, squeezed a little…and Tru didn’t flinch. Not a huge surprise, since we’ve realized he has such a high tolerance for pain. Whether he’s covered in bug bites or bonks his head, he barely notices. When he does cry out, we know something must really hurt.

His big brother is another story. He got a flu shot on Monday afternoon; I waited till the night before to tell him, since I knew it would stress him to no end. Just the thought of physical pain sends the kid reeling. The shot took half a second and he handled it well. But by that evening at home, his arm was so sore that he winced and whimpered each time he moved it – even when he didn’t realize we were watching. This told me he wasn’t overreacting to get our attention; his arm genuinely hurt. Again, not a surprise: he has always had such a low threshold for pain that he feels everything so acutely.

So, the kid with black and blue toes is bouncing around the house while the kid with the tiniest pin prick of a scab is grasping his arm in pain. Welcome to our home.

Days like that, when I witness the stark difference in my kids’ reactions to their pain, remind me that there is no right way to deal with discomfort. We all process pain – physical and emotional – so differently. It’s one of the subtle and fascinating ways we’re each unique. That said, it’s easy to judge someone who doesn’t handle discomfort the same way we do. Ever had a friend who’s sick, injured, stressed, depressed or grieving and questioned how she handled it – because it wasn’t the same way you would have gone about things? Sure, we all have.

When I speak about my journey through post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I tell audiences that trauma is a lot like a tornado. A twister can deck one house and leave the one next door unscathed, just as weathering a personal storm can all but destroy one person but barely impact another facing a similar challenge. Over the course of my life, there were probably lots of tiny indications that, if faced with a mental health crisis, I could easily crack. And I did. Afterwards, I was jealous of people who didn’t collapse under pressure, who seemed to float through challenges in a way I couldn’t. It took a long time to understand and accept that everybody does hurt, just not in the same ways or for the same reasons.

Now that I’m facing a new kind of pain {a heavy heart following my dad’s death this month}, I’m intensely aware again of how we all do this dance so differently. I’ve received advice that’s all over the map, like how long I should expect my heart to ache {one person said two weeks; another said two years}. I’ve been touched by heartfelt messages from friends who have walked this road; I’ve noticed the understandable silence from friends who have not. And I’ve watched my loved ones and our circle of friends with great interest, fascinated by how each person is dealing with this loss – some so crushed, others so angry, a few quite detached, but all approaching this pain in the best way they know how.

When people I know and love are suffering, I have a chance to meet them in their sacred, broken places. I realize now the best thing I can do is really so simple: ask them how they feel and then listen to what they say. And when I do inquire, I’ll strive to do so without judgment, without expectation, without applying my own feelings to the situation. The more I understand how a loved one is processing his pain, the better I can be at offering appropriate help and support. It works whether I’m with a friend in crisis or a kid who’s afraid of a flu shot.

We all need something for the pain, but every person needs something different. I kind of love that we were made that way.