What is suffering?
Suffering is a universal experience and is integral to living. While there are many causes for suffering, the theme of loss (in all its forms) seems to be a common denominator. Each person experiences loss in a different way. Suffering is therefore “idiosyncratic”.
One of the best definitions of suffering suggests that it is an unpleasant experience which arises from perceptions of impending destruction of an individual’s personhood. Suffering continues until the threat of disintegration has passed or the integrity of the person is restored.
We know people are suffering by their demeanor and by what they say. In keeping with the definition, people will often describe themselves as “broken”, “shattered” or “fallen into pieces”. It is important to realise that suffering affects the whole person. It makes no sense to say that my arm, or leg, is suffering. Suffering also challenges our particular world view, and may throw into chaos the very meaning and purpose of our lives. Relief of suffering, therefore, will often need a spiritual response. It is also worth remembering that pain and suffering are distinct conditions; physical pain may be present without a sense of suffering, and vice versa.
Important components in responding positively to suffering:
1. Pray at all times that the Holy Spirit will guide your motives, your thoughts, your actions, and your words. Pray that you will indeed have the mind of Jesus during your meeting with the other. Only Jesus changes people. You don’t.
2. Have some understanding of yourself first. Have some idea of what makes you tick, about your strengths and your vulnerabilities, maybe even your prejudices. What negative childhood experiences and feelings might be triggered when you talk to someone who is sick or helpless, and suffering? How might these feelings from long ago influence what you say and do in the present when you visit that person?
3. Do not attempt to fix the suffering, simply be present. Remember what the suffering Jesus in Gethsemane asked of His disciples: “Watch with me”. Not, “Give me advice” or “Make me feel better”. No, just, “Be there”. This can be a most difficult step.
4. Be attentive: use deep and active listening: aim to listen with your heart, as well as with your ears. What is this person feeling? Practise listening, not only to what is being said, but also to how it is said.
5. Avoid speaking unnecessarily. Don’t interrupt the other person. Get used to sitting in silence, waiting upon the other. Allow the person to vent how they feel. Listen with curiosity to the stories that people need to tell you; allow them to lament, “bleed the person of lament”.
6. Be prepared to hear many unanswerable questions, especially “Why has this happened?”. Your role will be to sit in the pain, with the other. When the unanswerable questions come, respond to the questioner, not the question. People who suffer do not need a lecture or a philosophical dissertation, they need empathy. After every unanswerable question, ask yourself, “What is the feeling behind that question; how is this person feeling?”. Is it anger, grief, sadness, rejection, helplessness, or something else?
7. Respond with empathic statements that let the other know that you sense how the other is feeling. Let the other know that you are a witness to their plight. It will mean a lot for the other to know that someone is listening. Statements such as “I imagine this must be overwhelming for you” can be powerful in encouraging more lament.
8. Beware of having your own agenda. Don’t meet the other with a certain outcome in sight. Meet them where they are, just as Jesus did. Importantly, as a Christian, do not be too ready (at least initially) to pray, or to read scripture, unless you are responding to a need, implied or otherwise. Your role is to make a caring, trustworthy, personal connection to be built upon. Beware of evangelising because of “Christian duty”, it is said that "hurting hearts have no ears". Care for the hurting heart first. Truth needs the right timing.
9. Gentle, appropriate touch can be a very powerful nonverbal way of saying “I care”, or “You are valued”. But use touch carefully. Respect cultural differences, and be wary of touch in the male-female interaction.
10. Avoid your need to “help” unnecessarily. By this, I mean don’t rob the person of their independence, don’t do everything for them. Try to assist suffering people to regain as much control or independence in their situation as possible, even in the most seemingly trivial of tasks. Suffering people generally need to feel useful.
There is clearly much more that could be said and written about how best to respond to suffering. It is often a very difficult and confronting job, especially when our natural tendency is to be “doing” something for someone. It may be helpful to remember that our role in relieving suffering, ultimately, is to nurture and sustain the other from brokenness, towards healing. And, as we respond to suffering, we become like a midwife, present to and mindfully-aware of the other as he/she journeys from one experience of life to the next: from anguish to peace, from fear to love, and from death to new life.
Prof. John Kearsley FRACP FRANZCR PhD is a Sydney-based senior cancer specialist who has a major interest in teaching communication skills, medical student education, and whole person care. He is currently training in pastoral care (hospital chaplaincy).