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Thursday, April 9, 2015

On Watching Someone You Love Suffer

Mary's face. Michelangelo's Pieta. 
Watching someone you love suffer is hard. It is also a spiritual duty. Given how hard it is, and how necessary it is, I'm surprised it does not receive more attention. Charity, patience, hope, diligence: we know their names. We have examples. We are to have the faith of the centurion, who believed that Jesus could heal his servant though Jesus never met him, the charity of the impoverished widow who donated the mite, which was all she had, the humility of the Canaanite woman who said that she, like a dog, would be satisfied with the scraps that fell from the Jews' tables. The courage of the early martyrs.

I don't even have a word for what I and others have been doing: watching my sister struggle for breath.

I'm not talking about the heroism of her family, who drove her to one last doctor, a doctor who screwed them over with the sadism of a Nazi and the greed of a cannibal (karma will bite you so hard one day, Mr. Big Rich Physician who jerked good people around yesterday just so you could get bigger and richer.)

I'm not talking about that kind of heroism, that kind of hoping against hope, because then at least you are doing something.

I'm not talking about changing her soiled sheets. Again, at least, you are doing something. I was a nurse's aide for years. It was one of my most satisfying jobs. It feels surprisingly good to be nice to other people in an active, hands-on way.

I'm talking about just sitting there, watching her struggle for breath, and knowing you can't do a damn thing to help.

I get it that in my own life people have had trouble with this. When I had the vestibular disorder, and I vomited and was paralyzed for hours … days … years, and I stumbled from one experimental surgery after another, I lost friends. Good friends. They did not want to watch me melt; they did not want to watch helplessly as my life, bit by bit, hope and writing and plans and my future, get sucked up and disappear in the big wind.

They couldn't do it. They could not see with me and watch me suffer.

I know why they couldn't. It's hard to do.

We should have a word for this activity. One word, one verb, so we didn't have to use all these words together: to watch someone you love suffer, to travel several days a week to be next to this person just for this reason alone, to know you can't do a damn thing to help, and not to shrink from this, but to embrace it, so your loved one is not alone in his or her suffering.

Co-suffer? Not really. Because you are not the one suffering.

Witness? Too many other meanings. The word is already used.

We need a hero for this verb. So those of us doing it, and finding it unbearable but unstoppable – I can't stand this; I can't leave – can say, "I can do this because ____ did it."

I can donate money even though I'm poor because the Widow who gave the mite donated and she was even poorer than I. I can have faith because the centurion had faith. I can get up and work every day because my parents got up and worked every day until they dropped. These activities have heroes, poster children.

Who is the hero of this verb I don't have in my vocabulary? Whose hand can I hold to get me through this?

As is the case with so many Bible truths, the deep, deep story is in there. It's just not told in so many words.

You have to imagine it.

What did Mary Magdalene go through, watching Jesus on the cross? The man she funded and followed?

What did Elizabeth go through?

We know what Mary the mother of Jesus went through. "A sword shall pierce your heart." 


  1. You and your family are in my prayers.

  2. In this battle we are alone with our pain, ma'am. There is no way to share the pain, the anguish, the helplessness, the despair. From the moment we accept that the miracle we pray for will not happen on, all that remains is the terror of the thing to come, that unforgiving Queen of the Nothingness, as the poet said. And we are still there because we love this person. That's what we do for our loved ones. We do not leave them alone. It's not heroism, it's not that we lack the will to avoid the suffering. It's to be a good, decent person.
    In my case, I learned from them both, my father and my mother, that that is what you do. As simply as that. Both have been gone for 3 years now the same horrific way.

    1. Cristina, God bless your parents and you.