Archive for the ‘spiritual care’ Category

The poet, Mary Oliver, died on January 17th at the age of 83. Her poetry has inspired me in my life, my work and writing for more than two decades. Here’s a link to a lovely reflection on her writing and her legacy.

The late poet’s work inspired a deeper understanding of attention, suffering, interconnectedness, and hope.
— Read on tricycle.org/trikedaily/mary-oliver/

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Last night at our monthly hospice volunteer gathering at a local pub, I raised a question about what we as volunteers can do in the face of suffering. I don’t mean physical suffering – though we do witness such suffering, we know that we can go and get the nurse and that chances are she will have some medication she can offer to relieve the pain or symptom.

I am talking about spiritual (or psychic) suffering. While physical pain may be connected to this type of pain, it can and does exist independently from pain – and can often be much more intractable. It may show up as “grouchiness” or rudeness or the inability to find comfort no matter how hard staff, volunteers and family may try. These tend not to be the patients whose rooms we happily enter. They are not the “lovely lady” or “sweet gentleman” that volunteers sometimes mention in the communication book. They are more likely to be referred to as rude or even abusive – never satisfied – or angry. We are much more likely to write “no contact” in the book, than “had a lovely chat.”

I am as challenged by the appearance of this type of suffering as my colleagues. Once I famously told off a patient who was claiming that I was trying to poison her with under-cooked French toast that “I have a PhD!” [In case you are wondering, my PhD is in history, not eggs.]

Not all patients with spiritual suffering are like my French toast lady. Some are reclusive, politely (or curtly) refusing our offers of assistance. Still, we can sense that there is unhappiness or regret or turmoil or something we can’t quite name, and we wish that we could help. Or at least I do. And most of the time, I conclude that I can’t.

I’m not a minister or a priest or a chaplain or a social worker. Sometimes I console myself that if we had such a person, they might be able to help. But I know full well that the patient is likely to refuse a visit with one of those people (unless they happen to be “their” minister) as with me.

Most of the time I tell myself that there really is nothing that I can do except to remain compassionate towards these people, and to see past their anger or rudeness, to not take it “personally” as I tend to do. Still, sometimes I imagine that they must be a way in, something I (or someone else) could say, to easy this suffering. I imagine someone asking the “right” question or sharing the right story or even singing a song, thereby providing some healing, however briefly.

The Buddhist tradition speaks of the importance of “witnessing” suffering, of being “with” suffering or sadness or fear, in a fearless and nonjudgmental way. Perhaps this is the best and most important thing that I can offer. In a culture that is endlessly focussed on fixing, perhaps witnessing is the antidote of all.


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