The older I get, the more conflicted I feel about everything. I hope feeling conflicted is in fact related to my growing sense of humility as I open up to other points of view. The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.
I used to despise the word suffering, as it is misused all the time in reference to people with disabilities. The horrific term ‘burden and suffering’ is often widely applied to human beings with differences, both before and after they are born. I still call bullshit on this stereotyping of other human beings in order to categorize them as less human.
So I dismissed the word suffering outright until I was diagnosed with cancer last year. It was then I felt the true meaning of suffering, as the past few months have been fraught with unresolved physical and emotional pain which was triggered by my cancer. I continue to heal from that experience.
I encountered Carlyn Zwarenstein’s writing about pain a few months ago. She invited me to look at the notion of suffering in her important book called Opium Eater, The New Confessions. Opium Eater is a small but mighty book that examines the use of legal opioids to manage chronic pain, looking at the historical, economical and emotional aspects of alleviating pain. Carlyn deftly draws upon the literary world for understanding. Andrew Sullivan’s recent New York article The Poison We Pick also tackles the concept of pain. He identifies pain as simmering underneath the terrible mounting opioid overdose deaths. As he explains about opioids: It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have comprehended the depths of such pain. But today I have a glimmer of understanding. While I am privileged enough to keep pain at bay with the occasional Ativan and regular therapy sessions, cancer has humbled me enough for me to glimpse at the great suffering in this messed up, beautiful world.
Part of my own healing has been writing. A few months ago, I was asked by Dr. Janice Bell to write a guest editorial for the Journal of Family Nursing about my perspective on suffering. It was published yesterday and is called Make Space for the Suffering.
I’m pleased that health care academic journals are starting to make space for the patient voice on their prestigious pages. I believe the inclusion of the patient voice makes their pages even more prestigious (and legit). This most recent editorial is a plea for health professionals not to turn away from patients’ and families’ pain.
I will continue to say over and over again – I’m a broken record – as I dare you, health professionals, families and friends, to draw upon compassion and not turn away from our pain:
Healers turn toward patients and families during their pain. A warm gesture, kind word, or gentle touch reminds us that we are not alone and makes space for our suffering. While health care can (sometimes) cure, it is love that will heal us in the end.