To Be Present with Suffering

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“When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.”    (chinua achebe)


For the past couple weeks, I have been with my brother who is recovering from a serious and extremely painful illness. I’ve never known pain this severe…necessitating morphine, just a step away from heroin.  His anguish and suffering is beyond words. 

Why is this happening? Why, God? he has asked in the throes of his nightly cries. Fortunately, he has a loving caregiver who never leaves his side and encourages his recovery in a million different ways, both big and small. He is making progress, albeit slowly, and we make it a point to celebrate each new achievement: walking a few more steps each day, sitting upright in a chair without pain, pouring a cup of coffee. Two steps forward, one step back…his progress is gritty, hard-earned and somewhat difficult to sustain.


What is suffering? Is it a revelation of God’s presence and love, and an expression of his desire to mine a deeper spiritual connection? Is suffering a ladder to the god of our understanding, a way to plunge deeper into one’s soul? Does intense and prolonged pain create greater empathy and compassion in the one who experiences its depths? 

Is suffering a message of love? Do the trials that one endures serve to grow and perfect one’s character? 


How we fill the hole that is created by our pain and distress is in our own hands; it cannot be any other way. Some say every deep disappointment in our lives serves to draw us even closer to the ones we love; to let down hardened walls of emotion and soften our hearts. There are no clean and easy answers. In the meantime, we continue to pray. Be silent. Laugh at his silly puns (it’s a revelation when humor penetrates pain). Listen to his beloved music. Enjoy the lively conversation of friends who visit.

Suffering has knocked on my brother’s door, and it will not leave for the asking. In a way, there is nothing he can do but wait to get well as he negotiates the hills and valleys of his protracted illness. In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron says: “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

My brother’s body may be in pain, but it is clear to me his indestructible heart, though vulnerable is still vivid, whole, and abundantly alive.

0 thoughts on “To Be Present with Suffering”

  1. How heart-breaking. May his suffering be eased. May it open him and you and all of us who hear. May the fire of his suffering guide the journey. Thank you, Monica.

  2. At a certain time in my life, Henri Nouwen was important to me – the only one who could put certain inexpressible realities into words. I've always treasured this passage:

    “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.

    The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

    How blessed your brother is to have you, and the others. May you all have increasing strength for the journey.

  3. Think I will look into Nouwen's work; I especially like the line about the reality of our powerlessness; accepting that reality requires a good dose of strength and resilience. Thank you for your kind words.

  4. Monica,
    I am deeply sorry to hear about your brother. My love and prayers are with you guys. I truly appreciate you sharing your intimate experience and your invaluable perspective as I am going through a similar time with my family.
    Sending love,

  5. I often feel as if watching another person's suffering is worse than being with my own. There's an impulse (at least in me) to want to make it better, even while honoring the pain, and the frustration of knowing how little I can do makes it worse. At least when the suffering is mine I deal with it, as best I can.You're so right, though, re: the way suffering makes us call into question some higher purpose, or meaning to it. And I'd be hard put to find someone better than Pema Chodron to shed some light on the question, maybe even answer it.

  6. Pema Chödrön's wisdom has often been helpful to me in moments of deep darkness and unbearable pain. It's so true that there are no clean and easy answers… Monica, please know that my thoughts and prayers are with you, your brother and his loved ones – it is a blessing to have family, laughter and music to help with the journey of healing.

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Welcome to the creative playground of Image, Sculpture, Verse.  I live in a river town nestled in the Chugach Mountain Range of Southcentral Alaska.



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