On Suffering

Mary H/ November 5, 2013/ Paul Brenner, MD, PhD

(Original Post from Dr. Brenner’s personal Blog, November 5, 2013)

Last Thursday at the Cancer Center,  became a seminar for me on suffering.  Three patients with cancer were distressed, not by their cancer or their therapy,  but by their children’s poor health.   There was essentially nothing I could offer.  Suffering is not medically treatable.   It is pain that only can be relieved by the individual who is experiencing it.  I was at a loss for words.

Later that weekend, I read the words of Victor Frankl, ” It matters little that you suffer, so long as you feel alive with a sense of close bond that connects all things, so long as love does not die”, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  In this classic work, he offered clues for dealing with the emotional pain of suffering.

There is no question as to the love my patients have for their children.  It was palpable and painful, for there was the loss of love they had for themselves and for life, depression.   It was difficult for me to manage.   They lost their gift of aliveness and allowed their joy to be diminished.   When Frankl talks about suffering, he is not only referring to personal pain, but the misery that is  taken on from the real or assumed pain of another.   Last week, I too took on the discomfort and helplessness of my patients.  In a very real sense I experienced third generational pain.

My patients and I allowed our helplessness, our inability to deal with another’s suffering, to diminish our immediacy, by not accepting our limitations.   We were lost in sympathy.  Love of self is as significant as love for another.  When love is diminished by helplessness or sense of personal failure to help or be there for another, it is at the expense of self.

I believe Frankl’s other quote from the same book, “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it”, also offers insight into the management of suffering for myself or another.  To form ‘a clear and  precise  picture’ is the truth that the only suffering that I can eliminate is my own.  I have to allow myself or another to experience suffering but not get lost in it.  To thrive in grief is to accept my fragility, my imperfections, my helplessness, my limitations, my illness or another’s illness or death as all part of being human.

The three patients last week brought me to a clearer  picture of suffering and  it’s management for myself and others.  Again my suffering was a  reminder to me for the zillionth time to accept my humanness and not to lose my footing in the here and now.   And, oh yes, to definitely remember the Serenity Prayer, whether you believe in God or not.

” God, grant me the serenity to accept
the things I can change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Reinhold Niebuhr