Describing Soul Pain

Between tearful sobs, Mary confides the painful story of how her life has become meaningless and of how parenting issues and marital problems have escalated since the suicide death of her teenage son, four years before. Listening to the descriptions of the circumstances of her life and observing her bent-over physical body, her lack of eye contact, her inability to articulate clearly, her monotone voice and her expressions of being exhausted and feeling emotionally flat, One can conclude that Mary is depressed, the type that results as a direct reaction to a major loss. Yet as a seasoned therapist I need to delve deeper, for I have learned that depression is not a true diagnosis; it is a collection of symptoms, all alerting a keen observer to a much greater concern. Her physical appearance, her expressions of billowing emotions, her struggles with mental clarity, her difficulties in relationships and her declarations that life has lost its meaning, all tell me that every aspect of Mary’s being is struggling to reorder a life that had been torn apart.

Mary identifies feelings of guilt and shame. “How,” she cries “could I not have seen his struggles?” Mary describes a loss of trust in self, in her decisions, in everyone and in everything. Tears flow as she tells that no longer can she attend her church. She finds her time there too pain-filled because it seems to intensify the challenges she is having with her long-held beliefs about heaven and hell. Beliefs that she once accepted without question and even found comforting, now fill her with anxiety about what her son might be experiencing. She fidgets in her chair and wrings her hands as she expresses feelings of powerless over her inability to control her son’s fate.

Mary’s narrative is a story of soul pain.

Defining Soul Pain

I am often asked to define soul pain. Soul pain is the sum total of the physical, mental, emotional and social distress experienced following a tragic life event. Yet, it is more than the sum of the distress of these human aspects. Soul pain is a crisis of the human spirit. It is suffering of the deepest kind. It is a plague deep within. It is a wrestling with the imponderable questions of life and death, of heaven and hell, of resurrection and reincarnation.

Soul Needs

Soul pain is intense distress of the human spirit that comes when old ways of meeting the soul’s needs no longer prove effective. Seven basic spiritual needs have been identified: (1, 2, 3)

1) The need to give and receive unconditional love from God, self and others

2) The need to trust God, self and others

3) The need to maintain hope

4) The need to forgive God, self and others and be forgiven by God, self and others

5) The need to find meaning in the experience

6) The need to find new purpose for the rest of life

7) The need to feel connected (to feel a sense of belonging and to feel that one matters, that one has a place, and that one is valued and important).

Three Phases of Soul Growth

While soul pain is distress of the most intense kind, it is a journey of growth. It is a journey that may take a long time, for it is a journey to the interior of one’s being and then back out again. It is a journey that can bring total transformation.

I like to compare this journey to that made by a caterpillar in its process of metamorphosis. 4 We come into the journey struggling, on our bellies as it were, like the caterpillar. In this first phase, while we begin to question the meaning of our experience, we attempt to obliterate the discomforting challenge to the status quo of our belief system.

By Phase 2, we have succumbed to the exhaustion of the struggle. As it is for the caterpillar in the cocoon, we are now blocked from the rest of the world. We become absorbed in our attempts to find answers to the unceasing questions that pour forth from our inner depths. Over time we acknowledge that many of the beliefs to which we have held so firmly, do not hold up under the scrutiny of our lived experiences.

The cocoon wears thin. We feel our wings. We are ready to take flight. Phase 3 is upon us. We are keenly aware that we have become something quite different. While we may not yet know what all the changes are, or what we are now to accomplish, we do know what beliefs we can no longer retain.

The experience of the tragedy has shaped and molded us. The soul pain has been the catalyst for the journey inward. There we have discovered a deeper and truer purpose for our lives. While we would have wished to have learned these lessons in an easier way, we are deeply grateful for the soul pain that has wrought our transformation. 5, 5


1) Stoll. J. The essence of spirituality. In V. Carson (ed.), (1989). Spiritual Dimensions of Nursing Practice. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

2) Hungelmann, J., Kenkel-Rossi, E., Klassen, L., Stollenwerk, R. (1985). Spiritual well-being in older adults; Harmonious interconnectedness. Journal of Religion and Health, 24 (2), 147-153.

3) Simington, J. (2004) Ethics for an evolving spirituality. In J. L. Storch, P. Rodney & R. Starzomski (Eds.). Toward a Moral Horizon: Nursing Ethics for Leadership and Practice, pp. 465-484. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada.

4) Simington, J. and VON (1999). Listening to Soul Pain (Audiovisual).Souleado Productions. Edmonton, AB: Taking Flight Books.

5) Simington, J. (2003). Journey to the Sacred: Mending a Fractured Soul. Edmonton, AB: Taking Flight Books.

6) Simington, J. (2010). Setting the Captive Free. Edmonton, AB: Taking Flight Books.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Jane A. Simington, Ph. D., is the owner of Taking Flight International Corporation and the developer of both the Trauma Recovery Certification Program and the Grief Support Certification Program. She is the president of the Canadian Association of Trauma Recovery Providers. Dr. Simington compliments her academic background in both Nursing and Psychology, with an extensive knowledge of alternative and complimentary methods of healing, including the uses of energy-transfer-healing, dream interpretation, art and guided imagery.
Dr. Simington is adjunct faculty at Union Institute and University in Cincinnati Ohio, and St. Stephen’s College at the University of Alberta. Dr. Simington is a frequent conference presenter, and workshop facilitator. Her numerous professional publications focus on her research and clinical interests in wholistic health, personal empowerment, spiritual well-being, dying, grief and trauma. Her work is featured in her books Journey to the Sacred: Mending a Fractured Soul, and Setting the Captive Free, the booklet, Responding Soul to Soul, the award winning films, Listening to Soul Pain and Healing Soul Pain and on CD’s Journey to Healing, Releasing Ties That Bind, and Retrieving Lost Soul Parts. Dr. Simington has been named Global Television Woman of Vision, March 2011.