suffering

Emotional suffering requires love

I have been ruminating for several weeks on an article about Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, which focuses on palliative end of life care. (That’s a PDF link, and the article starts on page 3.) It celebrates the life work of Dr. Michael Brescia, who is the hospital’s executive medical director and co-founder.

I cannot encourage you strongly enough to read the entire article; I’m only going to scratch the surface here. The interview is a testament to the powerful beauty of death tenderly accompanied by love, to hospice as a vestibule to heaven, to patients as living images of Christ on the cross.

In particular, I have been thinking about his explanation of suffering, the categories of suffering, and how they can be alleviated. How we, as people of both faith and science, can alleviate suffering with more than one tool.

As human beings we suffer in three main ways: spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Spiritual suffering has to do with the person in the bed saying, “Why did you do this to me, God? I don’t want to be here.” There is also fear: “Is there a God? Does He know what’s happening to me? Does He care?” One part of mental suffering is depression. There is wonderful medication that we can use to treat depression. But the main way we suffer is emotionally – the sense of abandonment, the absence of love. Emotional suffering can only be treated by love. [emphasis mine]

– Dr. Michael Brescia

Notice he doesn’t even mention physical suffering here, though his patients (cancer patients in extremely advanced stages of this ravaging disease) are clearly enduring horrific physical suffering too. But he pinpoints the deeper problem, the true problem that leads people to feel like hastening death is a reasonable way out: emotional suffering.

The more I have thought about this, the more I think that emotional suffering is the true epidemic of our times. I can’t think of too many societal or individual problems that don’t have emotional suffering somewhere near the roots. That’s why it’s remarkable that Dr Brescia’s solution is so simple: emotional suffering requires love.

The simplicity and truth of this assertion is backed up by his hospital’s remarkable success. “At Calvary we treat 6,000 patients a year, and no one, after they have been here for 24 hours, asks for assisted suicide.”

I’ve been testing it out at home over the intervening weeks. When I view my children’s annoying behaviors as a cry of emotional suffering, I respond differently, more carefully. When my marriage is strained by an argument — when the marriage itself is undergoing emotional suffering — pouring more love into it is a balm that heals.

The remarkable thing, though: When my own steps falter and my temper flares because I am feeling unloved and unsettled, both the receiving AND THE GIVING of love are healing. The beautiful, miraculous, ridiculous thing about love is that its healing power works on everyone it touches, like ripples on a pond spreading in every direction.

A friend stirred up a Facebook discussion on one of my other posts, asking what actions are concretely helpful to take when someone is in deep emotional suffering, so deep that they are in danger of losing their faith entirely. And I answered that question in the context of this article: the only thing that is required is love (my answer was longer and more meandering, but that’s what it boils down to). Love, in such cases, means climbing down into the trenches to accompany that person. Dr. Brescia says it means just a few, very concrete things: “Be present, give information, touch them, hold them, and tell them that they are a gift to you.”

(That is pretty much exactly what happened to our family on pilgrimage. It transformed our emotional suffering into a deep, abiding joy and confidence in God’s mercy.)

What would the world look like if that’s all anyone ever did for a person who was suffering?

Heaven. It would look an awful lot more like heaven.

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