Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Response to Suffering

I think that Wednesday is my favorite day of the week for several reasons. First, it means the week is half over. Second, for the CPE students here at Loyola, it means that there's no "group" that day so one can spend the entirety of one's shift seeing patients. Third, I get to go in late which means that I head off to Dunkin Donuts for my French Vanilla coffee (Large with skim milk) and then meander over to the hospital to begin work by noon.

Today promises to be interesting. Early Sunday morning, I met with a woman whose body has been ravaged by cancer. Clutching her teddy bear, this mother of four adult children cried as she told me that she wanted to die, that she wanted to go to heaven, that she wanted to see her parents and grandparents again. She cried as she told me that her children were having a hard time with letting her enter hospice...that they considered it "giving up." She cried asking me to pray with her that she die.

So I prayed with her that she would die.

And today, I believe, she will.

There are a number of medical reasons for this, I'm sure, but it just seems to me that she's now ready. Her doctors didn't give her long to live, to be sure, but it appears that she's at peace with the encroaching horizon of death that looms before her. I pray for her peace and joy and consolation as she embarks into the death, the next leg of her Christian journey.

I titled this post "suffering" because it's something I've been struggling with. Suffering here is that response to one's situation where he/she finds him/herself without recourse, without options, perhaps even without hope. In her case, suffering is a holistic event uniting the body-in-pain with the mind. Perhaps in a terrible cycle, the body's pain informs one's thinking, darkening one's vision and blinding the sufferer who wants to lessen the pain, to step out of the agony. In such cases even the voice words, just raspy breaths, speak for the person. And in this entrapping silence, the hopelessness and misery amplify further the pain felt and the spiral begins another turn.

And what is our response? What do we say? Perhaps the best course is to say nothing and to listen. For it is in listening that we encourage the one suffering to tell her story, to find her voice in the midst of chaos. Our mission of mercy - as Jim Keenan says "entering the chaos of another" - calls us to be present with the person, not to answer the damning question of suffering, but to be with them as a listener.

And so today I will listen as this woman's family prepares for her loss. I will listen as she struggles for breath. I will listen to the sounds of silent tears giving way to sobs as she slips away into the divine darkness that calls her home. And I will listen...just listen...and pray.
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