Sitting with Suffering: A Lesson from a Patient

“Don’t throw away your suffering. Touch your suffering. Face it directly, and your joy will become deeper. You know that suffering and joy are both impermanent. Learn the art of cultivating joy. Practice like this, and you come to the third turning of the Third Noble Truth, the “Realization” that suffering and happiness are not two. When you reach this stage, your joy is no longer fragile. It is true joy.” 

Thích Nhất Hạnh

I think it is normal for us, as humans, to constantly wonder about suffering – the suffering of others and our own suffering. Suffering has been given many definitions throughout history, and there are countless perspectives (spiritual, philosophical) on the origins and purposes of suffering. Suffering is even glorified, for example with the experiences of martyrs. Even if we do not suffer the way others do, the simple awareness of others’ suffering causes us to suffer too. Understanding why we suffer has escaped our understanding, as hard as we feebly try to make sense of it.

This summer, I had a patient and her husband who taught me some critically important lessons about suffering. I will share their story and what they taught me here.

My patient was a healthy woman of middle age. She went for a routine procedure, which she did well during, but thereafter her heart stopped beating. She was revived and taken to the hospital. Catastrophically, the lack of blood flow during the cardiac arrest had done significant damage to her brain. When it became clear that the chances of meaningful neurological recovery were zero, I became involved in the case to help prepare the family for making decisions about the end of life. After weeks of giving her every possible chance to recover, her husband made the unfathomably difficult decision to remove life support and allow her to die with dignity and comfort.

I prepared the husband for the expected timeframe for when the patient might pass away. Everyday, this patient’s husband sat by her side. He would take short breaks to go outside for a walk by the hospital. Other than that, he was at her side constantly. He would do pushups in the room to maintain some level of his own strength and health. He tried to maintain a balanced diet, as best as you can with hospital food, to assure that he could stay focused and strong for his wife. He stayed ever vigilant because although he knew in his mind that she would not survive, he hoped in his heart and soul that she would recover. As he put it, he did not want to miss the will of God in either scenario.

This process of comfort care, for various reasons, took far longer than what is “typical” for a patient at the end of life. Throughout the hours, days, and weeks after his wife was taken off life support, he remained her steadfast advocate. He shared stories of the love they shared. In getting to know more about their relationship, it became clear that these two were truly, deeply in love and the best of friends. Every moment of his day was directed towards assuring her comfort and that she was taken care of with the most respect and dignity.

Throughout my time speaking with him, he opened up more and more. He never faltered in his faith, however. He never portrayed anger at God for the current situation he and his wife were in. Instead, he always stated that He was trying to be open to learning the lesson that God had for him in this experience. He knew that he may never learn the reason for his suffering, but he knew there was a reason. He strived to be open to the lessons of the pain. Moreover, when she continued to live on far past what was the expected time frame, he continued to ask God for clarity on what he was trying to be taught during this time.

Ultimately, his wife passed away. Her death was peaceful, and he was at her side when she did pass. I later learned that he heard (dreamt?) her calling his name as he was asleep, and as soon as he got up to ask her what she was trying to tell him, she passed away. Strangely, the night before she passed, I myself had a dream that she woke up and could walk, which was the miracle he had been hoping for all along.

This man’s wife was loved by many and was beautiful inside and out. He showed me a photo of her not long before her hospitalization, and she was gorgeous! I could never give him a reason for why he had to endure this loss and this deep suffering, but it was certainly not my place to provide any explanations. I cannot help but think that his experience was meant to help others, including those caring for his wife, to witness and understand what true love and companionship is. It is not about external beauty, for her appearance had been vastly altered by her medical condition and weeks of being immobile. It is not about anything material that can be bought or gifted, because no amount of money could heal her mind the way we all hoped for. It is not about only remembering the good times together, because this most difficult time was the one that was teaching him the most. Instead, it is about the simple connection between two souls that withstands the tests of extreme suffering.

These two individual reminded me that we all will experience hardship and suffering, but instead of fighting against it, all we can do is feel it and be open to the lessons. Rather than focusing on the unfairness of it all, we have the power to shift our mindset to a place of acceptance. It may take decades to learn the lesson being taught, but the point is to keep trying to understand that lesson. None of us will escape suffering, but all of us can keep going forward with strength, dignity, and purpose.

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