Thursday 9 March 2023

Musing on suffering

Over the last year and months, many of my closest friends have been suffering - either the prolonged illness and death of a parent, or scary illnesses and surgeries of close family members, and in several cases a perfect storm of multiple such issues descending upon the family. So much heartbreak, and suffering. Part of it is just all of us hitting middle age and sandwiched between aging parents with health issues, and teenage kids with their own problems, at a time when our own bones are creaking and our bodies in most cases are slowing down. As so many of my friends exclaim - "All we seem to do is talk about health issues and doctors!"

Then just today, I was invited to attend the memorial service of the son of someone I know. This more-than-an-acquaintance, less-than-a-friend, is in his 60s and his 30-something son took his own life a year ago, after struggling for several years with a mental illness. The (Zoom) service began with a slideshow of the son's life. Looking at the happy smiling family pictures, I almost tore up. Even though I never knew the son and don't know the dad all that well, I could connect with the unimaginable pain and the rush of emotions he must be experiencing at the moment. And of course, as a parent, you can identify with the loss at a cellular level. As I was watching the slideshow, my phone pinged, and seeing it was an email from Ads' school, I immediately opened it. The principal was notifying the school community about the death of one of the students today. Even Ads had not heard about it and this was yet another heartbreaking news to top off the day.

I almost didn't attend the service but I am glad I didn't skip it. My friend's eulogy for his son was very moving. Being in solidarity with him and listening to his heartfelt words, even if only virtually, gave me a fresh reminder of how often we just sleepwalk through life, overvaluing a lot of things that don't mean much on your deathbed, even while undervaluing all the little joys and triumphs of daily life. What are the values we want to live by? Is this an issue I want to go to battle over? What will make the other person happy, while making me not-unhappy?

When people around you are dealing with life-threatening illnesses or the loss of a loved one, it's impossible not to feel grateful for all the good things happening in your life. Our life becomes much more meaningful once we practice gratitude so regularly it becomes like muscle memory. 

At the same time, I feel I am also getting impatient with problems that seem self-inflicted, superficial or just plain silly. And that's not a nice empathetic state of being. Edith Eger, in her thought-provoking book "The Choice", has this to say:

I also want to say that there is no hierarchy of suffering. There’s nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we can plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another. People say to me, “Things in my life are pretty hard right now, but I have no right to complain—it’s not Auschwitz.” This kind of comparison can lead us to minimize or diminish our own suffering.

One morning I saw two patients back to back, both mothers in their forties. The first woman had a daughter who was dying of hemophilia. She spent most of her visit crying, asking how God could take her child’s life. I hurt so much for this woman—she was absolutely devoted to her daughter’s care, and devastated by her impending loss. She was angry, she was grieving, and she wasn’t at all sure that she could survive the hurt.

My next patient had just come from the country club, not the hospital. She, too, spent much of the hour crying. She was upset because her new Cadillac had just been delivered, and it was the wrong shade of yellow.

On the surface, her problem seemed petty, especially compared to my previous patient’s anguish over her dying child.....

I realized that day how much my two patients, who appeared so different, had in common—with each other and with all people everywhere. Both women were responding to a situation they couldn’t control in which their expectations had been upended. Both were struggling and hurting because something was not what they wanted or expected it to be; they were trying to reconcile what was with what ought to have been.

Wise words. I'm afraid I am not there yet! And sometimes I feel I don't want to be. Some people, I just want to knock them on their heads and say "Get a grip. Don't whine. Just think of actions and solutions, you'll be fine."

Of course, I would never actually say that. But I can't promise not to think it!

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