Monday, March 3, 2014

Clean or Dirty

Something I’ve begun to distinguish since Dave died is clean pain versus dirty pain. I can’t remember the original source of this idea, though I’ve read about the concept several different times.

Clean pain is the pain we feel when we lose someone or something we love dearly. It’s the pain we naturally feel when we’re ripped from something precious. When we watch our love dying, when we begin to face each day without them, when we find out we have a terrible diagnosis, our child is hurt or dying, or our life simply changes in ways we didn’t anticipate or want. It’s natural grief. It’s suffering, and it’s a response to loss.

Dirty pain, on the other hand, is pain we create in our minds, with or without actual loss. Dirty pain isn’t wrong or right. It’s also natural. It’s just optional. Easier said than done, I know.

I felt dirty pain after Dave died when I tormented myself about being so scared when he was hospitalized, that I couldn’t comfort him enough. I felt guilty. I felt like a terrible person. I felt like I could have helped him heal if only I could’ve put my fears aside for a second (as if I have those powers!).
I felt dirty pain when I felt guilty for wanting to have sex again (with someone else!). I felt dirty pain when I thought that I could’ve been a better wife while he was alive, or when I didn’t stay home from work with him the day before he was hospitalized. I feel dirty pain when I imagine that he was scared and lonely as he died without his loved ones around him.

We feel enough pain as it is. The rest is just plain torture. I believe that if the roles had been reversed and it’d been me to get sick and die, I’d want Dave to spend exactly ZERO milliseconds feeling guilty for anything at all. I’d want him to actively look for another healthy relationship as soon as he was ready, if that’s what he wanted. I’d want him to let go of the horrible visions of my imagined terror in my last moments.

This is NOT to say that feeling all the dirty pain we feel is not expected and normal and part of the process. It’s not to say that it’s easy to stop feeling it. And it’s not to say that I don’t battle dirty pain daily. I do. But something happened when I began to differentiate the two. I suppose my mind was able to categorize the thoughts. I could recognize dirty pain and say to myself that I could worry about that later, I had clean pain to deal with. Maybe I spend 10% less time struggling with dirty pain than I used to. Maybe. It’s something though.

It’s less suffering. Which means more of my energy is freed up to build a new life, be present in relationships, and enjoy the shit out of the moments of joy I do have. 


  1. Hi Cassie,

    I have been reading widows voice for almost four years now since Andrew died.......every time new writers come on board I get worried that they won't be as good as the ones who leave.....every time I am so very, very wrong......I have so much dirty pain from the month Andrew was in the hospital after his accident but not until today had I ever heard the term. Thank you all for sharing yourselves with will never know how much you help.....Maureen

  2. Oh i really loved this post. I have noticed that difference since my dad died in 2009, i had a lot of guilt with him. And eventually i started to notice the two different kinds, but i never have heard it described as clean and dirty pain. I really love that. The dirty pain definitely complicates trying to work through and feel the clean pain. I'm getting better all the time at not listening to the dirty pain when it comes up. for me, it's been a like graduate school for self love. The more i love and respect myself, the more powerful a gatekeeper i have become to saying no to the dirty pain.

    Thanks for sharing this one today… i needed it!

  3. I use the same concept only with different names: Healing pain and Infected pain.
    Once again I've learned that I am not alone...