Suffering and Healing - when wounds are more than skin deep

I am chopping carrots at home and the knife slips - there is a small searing pain. Blood drips, I bandage the wound, and the bleeding stops. A few days later, the cut is just a thin line. We heal ourselves.

When we see a doctor we want to be cured. We want them to remove, or correct our problem. A surgeon’s knife cuts out an inflamed appendix. The patient is happy, she has survived. She returns to her family and friends, back to her job and all that makes up a life. She is essentially unchanged, we all like to be cured and return to our normal pattern. We want to avoid change.
In most human suffering there is nothing to see. It happens at a level where a plaster cannot cover it. Drugs may help with pain, but they only numb suffering. We all suffer at some time or other in our lives, it is usually related to love or loss. As we move through lives loved ones die, and our dreams get shattered. We feel it to the core of our being.

Suffering is an awful feeling of distress, an angst that is a different order from pain. In contrast to pain, suffering is our experience of being cut off. It is caused by the loss, or threatened loss of what we most cherish. The loss of love, or an encounter with a serious disease, can leave us with a hole in our soul and in our lives. How do we heal that suffering?

In World War II, Victor Frankl, a young Jewish psychiatrist and his family were taken from Vienna and incarcerated in the concentration camps. His mother and brother died in Auschwitz. His wife Tilly died in Belsen. His sister Stella and he were the only survivors. After the war he wrote about his experience. His book Man’s Search for Meaning sold 10 million copies.  In those camps he wrote ‘What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude to life. We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life- daily and hourly.’

The intensity of suffering is a continuum extending from distress, through misery, to anguish and agony. On any one day we can have moments of being downcast by little disappointments, various frustrations, and failures.  Being separated from what we love is suffering; not getting what we want is suffering.

We heal suffering through mourning, by slowly accepting, experiencing, and bearing the loss. The person who suffers life-altering situations can go through the same process described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross – a journey through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Ireland still uses ritual to honour and help lament the death of a loved one. But generally in the Western world we are not encouraged to grieve our losses. We are told that we should be self-sufficient, and to not give into the negative. That we should keep our composure, be ‘cool’, be happy, be positive, and to look on the bright side.

The most valuable thing we can give each other is our undivided attention, some genuine interest, and our natural warmth

But think of how it feels when we speak of our sorrow and a friend cuts us short, and tells us to look on the bright side. Many have learned to keep their feelings always hidden, out of a sense of shame and a fear of ridicule. It is important to appreciate the good parts of our life, but it is also vital to allow ourselves sometimes to cry, and to mourn life’s losses.

The reality of life includes birth and death, joy and sadness, pleasure and heartache. Often we may hold on too long because we cannot face the reality of inevitable loss, the slipping away of the old life and the old self. We often put our head in the sand through the short-term solace of an addiction. The pain of the loss then gets postponed and prolonged. We get better by acknowledging, experiencing, and bearing the reality of our loss. We need to lift off the lid to the well of our being, explore what we know and actually feel what we feel. Then the tears and laughter can surface, but we need plenty of time and space to get to know them. We might also need to share our suffering with a friend or relative or perhaps seek some professional help to understand what burdens us.

Alice Miller, the Swiss psychologist talks of the need of the ‘enlightened witness’ especially for victims of childhood maltreatment. An enlightened witness helps us feel seen and accepted despite our shame and secrets.

I went through a dark time 25 years ago during and after a divorce. I was lucky as I was able to reach out in my distress. Two friends were my enlightened witnesses, and they listened to and accepted me.  They did not lecture me but believed in me and my intrinsic goodness. I slowly moved with their help to the other side of mourning. I became more able to accept and express my anger, my sadness, and my jealousy.  From early childhood I had learned to hide those ‘unacceptable’ parts of me in a musty closet. Now I am more in touch with my family of feelings, the ‘good’ ones, and the ones I find harder to accept. I hope that the result is a greater empathy to the feelings and suffering of others.

The fabric of our lives - our relationships, our home, our work, our beliefs, and many of our activities help give life meaning. Our integrity and identity is threatened if we lose one or more of these structures from our life. The comfort of our routine is stripped away by the pain of loss. We suffer because we are unable to make peace with the reality of our new situation. Meaning has been taken away from us, and so we are forced to start looking for sustenance and meaning in this new and lonely place.

As we question ourselves, we can start to realize what is important to us. Through the experience we can slowly learn to be with ourselves more deeply, and in the process discover parts of ourselves that were previously hidden. In the searching and suffering, something slowly changes in the depths of our soul. The wound starts to heal, and we begin making peace with what is.

Even though I am a doctor, part of me is also a patient. The word ‘patient’ comes from the Latin patiens which means ‘one who suffers’. We are all patients.  Suffering is part of being human.    What do we need most if we are suffering? We may feel withdrawn and undeserving, but sooner or later we need to take a risk and be vulnerable, and be seen for who we are.

Someone suffering often has a downcast expression which can be off-putting. Our body language can give out mixed messages - Leave me alone, and don’t go - in our inner confusion, we often simply do not know what we want. But the most valuable thing we can give each other is our undivided attention, some genuine interest, and our natural warmth. Being heard and accepted goes far beyond any problem-solving, platitude or intellectual understanding of our plight.

If we pay heed to the sufferer and are fully present for them, then they may begin to recognize and connect with their own value.  If they are allowed to relate their story to us, they can begin to reflect on, redefine, and finally maybe transcend their suffering. There is an inherent distress in keeping our story untold. We can aggravate or prolong this suffering by walking away, or by ignoring the stories that need to be told. If we can recount our story and reveal ourselves more fully, the suffering becomes us, we integrate and we become whole. And we are for a time healed.

May you have the commitment
To know what has hurt you,
To allow it to come close to you,
And in the end, become one with you.

About the author: 

William Fulford lives in County Clare, and has been a General Practitioner for 33 years. He is interested in a broad approach to health and healing, one that encourages symptoms and dreams to unfold naturally. His workshops on this theme ‘Let the Body Speak. Art, Creativity, and Symptoms’, help explore the connection between symptoms and creativity.

He can be contacted on 085-7767455 or [email protected]