Suffering: When Truth is a Lie

tearsShe said, near the phone call’s end, “At least he’s no longer suffering.”

He said, as if sharing a secret confession, “I couldn’t stand that she was suffering.”

I hear those comments every week in my hospice work. When talking with the bereaved, on the phone or in person, they will offer a version of the suffering statement.

No one wants a loved one—a teen with dreams of a college scholarship, a once vibrant fifty-something spouse, or an elderly grandmother who baked the best apple pie—to suffer. In hospice, diseases have often stalked patients for years. In many cases, lengthy efforts to destroy the disease before it destroyed the body had success. Chemo and radiation can have extraordinary results, but they create suffering—physical and emotional—as a “war” is raged in your flesh and bone. But isn’t suffering worth the cost of pain—the headaches, sour stomachs, and sleepless nights—because today’s agony means you’ll live tomorrow? And tomorrow? Yes, many will put up with great suffering for the hope of a day when life returns to . . . normal. Normal, of course, is negotiable. But suffering the pain can seem a bargain worth making.

Suffering bloodied the battlefields, but even more suffering came after a “victory” or “defeat.”

Suffering bloodied the battlefields, but even more suffering came after a “victory” or “defeat.”

History trembles with memories that make personal suffering from illness feel (if only momentarily) trivial. Christians remember Jesus’ cruel suffering at the hands of the Roman Empire every year during Holy Week. The Holocaust is a repugnant and recent reminder of the suffering of millions. 620,000 soldiers lost their lives during the American Civil War. Two thirds died from disease . . . not directly by bayonets or bullets. Suffering bloodied the battlefields, but even more suffering came after a “victory” or “defeat.”

I talked to a husband yesterday who confessed to changing his mind about his wife’s suffering. Her illness had been debilitating. In her seventies, life had shifted from gardening and grandchildren to endless visits to a cancer center. While there were better days, the awful days accumulated. He said, “In the first weeks after her death, I was so glad she was in a better place and her suffering was finally over.” But the next weeks came: visiting family had left, friends who’d stopped by returned to their routines, and the urgent to-do lists following the death were managed . . . and now there was too much time to think. Now he missed her. “I want her back. Sometimes, I pretend she’s only gone for awhile and will be back soon.”

Would he take her back with her suffering?

Of course not! However . . .

Grief is a knife with a cutting edge at both ends.

Why is there suffering? I can’t answer that. I know the mental and spiritual anguish during a divorce in my late twenties eventually led to more compassion and empathy for others. In my early thirties, the physical anguish after breaking bones in my leg eventually produced stronger limbs and a greater commitment to exercise. Suffering has rewards!

But the husband wanted his wife back. He was glad her physical suffering ended with death. But, in truth, it began his emotional suffering.

We can’t avoid suffering.

We can’t avoid grief.

In grief, we may never cry, but we will tell ourselves lies.

In grief, we may endlessly cry, but our souls feel bone dry.

When a loved one enters hospice, some patients and families enter into a kind of civil war. Conflicts surface like sharks seeking prey. The family that never talked about dying is forced to have raw conversations. Assumptions about endless tomorrows and endless opportunities to give or seek forgiveness now have an expiration date. Drugs to ease the pain are labeled bad and addictive. As debates about the drugs provoke more tension, the patient’s pain—suffering—worsens.

I cannot tell you why there is so much suffering. Anne Lamott, in her Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers, wrote . . .

Human lives are hard, even those of health and privilege, and don’t make much sense. This is the message of the Book of Job: Any snappy explanation of suffering you come up with will be horseshit. God tells Job, who wants an explanation for all his troubles, “You wouldn’t understand.”

How I wish Ms. Lamott’s comments were wrong. I wish. I wish. I wish.

I can tell you every compassionate hospice nurse will do everything in his or her power to relieve the physical suffering from an illness.

I can tell you every compassionate social worker will do everything in his or her power to relieve the emotional suffering from being helpless when watching a loved one die.

I can tell you every compassionate chaplain will do everything in his or her power to relieve the spiritual suffering that comes when it feels like God has abandoned your loved one or you.

I can tell you every compassionate hospice counselor who contacts you after the death of a loved one knows you’re suffering.

Yes, we speak the truth when saying we’re glad the suffering ended for our beloved.

How often is the truth a lie?

But, in the mysterious depths of love, suffering never truly ends. It softens. It evolves. It ebbs more than flows. I try to remember the ways of suffering when making a bereavement phone call, or chatting with a friend, or meeting a stranger.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. When I was young (I must have been) There was no patrimony, to divide, but I left anyway. Years later in a faraway land, i.e. not Oklahoma as I fought a hog for a particularly nutritious husk I tried to remember how to get back home I knew somehow that why I left in the first place was beyond me, and probably did not matter anyway, but I needed some reason for going there other than aversion to fighting republicans their proper food. Matthew, mark Luke John, and the hunchback all had terrific brochures, but they unanimously said that I could not check my duffel of rage nor could I take it as a carry on. A childhood spent in the bosom of newly middle class southern protestants assured that I knew only the brochures with no way to access the Grimoires. Job. It was Job. The day I discovered that Hallmark had added a “better” ending . was the first blaze on the trail home. I have not read Lamott. Perhaps her Job reference is snide..sarcastic. It does not signify. God does not simply say “you wouldn’t understand” in the way that some clerics intone “it’s a mystery” (translation; tithe and shut up). God says, using the best poetry (KJV) ever penned, “Running a universe is hard , harder than even I can tell you. If I tried ….no, if I told you what is involved in the creation, care and maintenance of the simplest thing in my world your little pound or so wrinkled tissue would overload and short out. I did not make you…. have you ever, just once whether there is anything you could do to help as opposed to wanting my job,Job?
    What a good piece of work you have produced. The Lamott quote serves as a fulcrum, leveraging a startling amount of power for so brief an essay. keep on working

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