Thoughts and Reflections

Thoughts and Reflections

Suffering, Healing and Meaning: What do we do with the suffering of those we love?

The connection between healing and suffering is a constant across cultures, centuries, and every part of the world. Wherever you go, in whatever culture you find yourself, from ancient times to now, healthcare exists as a response to the terrible suffering caused by disease and brokenness.

Whether you consult a shaman of the Huichol tribe in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, an Ayurvedic doctor in Nepal, or an internist, surgeon, nurse, pharmacist, physical therapist, or social worker at UMMS, you most likely did so with a desire to relieve suffering.

In the Middle Ages, doctors employed the doctrine of humors to find a way to relieve suffering. Today, some people seek balance in their ch'i, while others undergo the rigorous demands of chemotherapy to fight cancer. All of these individuals seek to find relief from suffering and restoration to health.

The frustration that we experience when we cannot find relief from suffering cannot be underestimated. Studies have shown that in spite of the best efforts to relieve suffering, patients sometimes experience suffering in their interaction with their healers just as they do from their illness itself. What's more, those same studies also show that health caregivers of all disciplines also experience suffering in the interaction between caregiver (both professional and personal) and patient.

What causes our suffering as caregivers, for ourselves and for others?

Exhaustion -- physical, spiritual and emotional -- from overwork is often where it starts. Feelings of helplessness, frustration and even guilt emerge when we are unable to relieve suffering. We can experience a sense of being trapped in the complexity of suffering and disease as we wait for solutions, always fighting against the ticking clock.

And, as we find that we cannot always meet the goal of relieving the suffering of ourselves and our loved ones, we sometimes retreat, and simply find ourselves going through the motions. It follows, then, that we find our initial hopes and dreams for recovery dissolving, and the sense of meaning in continuing the effort trickling away.

How do we cope with the suffering we experience?

A far too common response of caregivers is to be ashamed and to deny the suffering. It's easy to think of the suffering we experience as weakness.

In truth, the suffering we experience is what often makes us co-journeyers of life with those we love. It's also what can give us a creative and transformative connection with one another; in our own suffering wounds, we can often find the very source for comfort and healing, not only for others, but also for ourselves.

Embracing the suffering seems counterintuitive to our desire to help, but doing so often unleashes the very healing we seek.

Over the centuries, in all cultures, places and times, this idea of the wounded healer has been valued and cherished.

The ancestors of Western medicine, the ancient Greeks, looked to the figure of their god Chiron to teach and inspire them; wounded but never dying, Chiron lived in pain throughout eternity, but healed others through his pain.

In the biblical story of Genesis, people of many faith communities remember Jacob who was wounded as he wrestled with an angel, struggling to receive his new name and destiny; in the process of becoming Israel, Jacob's hip was wounded, and he carried the limp for the remainder of his life.

Many traditional healers of tribal communities throughout history and from all over the world were only allowed to take on the role of healer if they had a corresponding wound. It was believed that healing was found in the place of wounding.

The wounded healer today. In more contemporary times, the term "wounded healer" takes on new meaning. Religious writer Henri Nowen spoke of the wounded healer in terms of physical, spiritual and emotional well-being.

Viktor Frankl, the famous physician, psychiatrist and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, wrote that to be ashamed of the experience of suffering is, essentially, to be ashamed of life itself; examining and owning the suffering in one’s own life, he said, is the process by which we find meaning and hope.

How do we make the best use of our own wounds as we care for the wounds of others?

Integrating the wounds of our own suffering is very important as we seek to make best use of our wounds, but it can be a delicate process. It's important to strike a balance between avoiding our wounds and getting mired down in them.

On the one hand, if we avoid or deny our own suffering, we miss the opportunity for finding meaning and growth. But, on the other hand, when we stay stuck in our suffering, we run the risk of splashing our personal pain out onto others. Not being able to empathize with those who suffer dehumanizes both the caregiver and the one receiving care; but an equally thorny problem is finding ourselves focusing too much on our own suffering.

One very valuable way to find the balance we seek is in talking with others. This discussion can sometimes be difficult between patient and caregiver. Sometimes friends and other family members can be a resource.

Many people find that talking with a professional caregiver who specializes in supporting professional helpers can be an excellent resource. Professional chaplains, social workers and therapists can help create a safe place for examining and integrating our suffering into our lives so that it becomes a source of meaning.

Perhaps it is a part of our nature to long for a perfect world where all is pleasant and perfect health is the norm. But maybe it would help us to remember that "perfect" is not always "best." As we own and honor the woundedness of our own lives, and as we listen for the meaning and hope that is woven amidst the threads of suffering, perhaps we will find that we can become better and more empathetic caregivers as we allow ourselves to be less perfect. And maybe we can receive the care offered with less anxiety if we learn to see the process of giving and receiving care as an element of the cycle of life. And hopefully we can find a bit of joy and peace of mind in the process as well.

Did you find this article interesting? Would you like to learn more, or share your thoughts on the subject? Any of our UMMS chaplains would be happy to talk with you. You can reach a chaplain by calling the Department of Pastoral Services, 410-328-6014, or by paging 8-BEEP-HOLY.


The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the following source as inspiration for this article:

Daneault, Serge, MD PhD. Commentary: The Wounded Healer: Can this idea be of use to family physicians? Canadian Family Physician 2008:54:1218-1219.

Dr. Daneault is an Assistant Professor of family medicine in the Faculty of Medicine, Palliative Care Unit, at Notre Dame Hospital in the Centre hospitalier de l’Universite de Montreal in Quebec.

Dr. Daneault may be contacted at Dr. Serge Daneault, Palliative Care Unit, Notre Dame Hospital, Centre Hospitalier de l'Universite de Montreal (CHUM), 1560 Sherbrooke St E, Montreal QC H2L 4MI; telephone 514 890-8000, ext 26248; email


1 Shaman is one title given to healers in many traditional tribal cultures. In the Huichol communities of the Sierra Madres, the shaman can act both as a guide for souls of those who are dead and/or dying as well as a healer of ailments/disease among the living. Shamanistic healing is largely understood to work with the spiritual realm in order to bring harmony to the physical.

2 Ayurvedic Medicine is the traditional medical system of India and Nepal. Ayurvedic doctors treat more than 80 percent of the people on the Indian subcontinent and go through extensive training that can last as long as 12 years. Several Ayurvedic therapies (e.g., herbs, massage, Yoga) have been integrated into complementary and alternative medicine in western medicine. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word which can be translated as "life force." Ayurveda stresses balance and alignment of the elements and substances of life.

3 Doctrine of humors refers to the ancient Greek theory of the four bodily fluids [blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile) and melancholy (black bile)] that were believed to determine health and temperament. Emerging from the writings of Hippocrates (c. 450-c. 377 BCE), humoral theory formed the basis of Western medicine and was tremendously influential through the 18th century. In humoral medicine, both general health and emotional stability were dependent upon keeping the four humors (bodily fluids) in balance.

4 Ch'i (also spelled chi, qi, and ki) refers to the vital energy of life. For practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this vital energy circulates through the body along specific interconnected channels called meridians. The aim of the techniques of TCM (e.g., acupuncture, qigong) is to correct the disruptions of the flow of ch'i and thus bring harmony (e.g., health, order) back to the patient.

5 For further information, two of these studies are found in the following articles:

  • Daneault S, Lussier V, Mongeau S, Hudon E, Paille P, Dion D, et al. Primum non nocere: could the health care system contribute to suffering? In-depth study from the perspective of terminally ill cancer patients. Can Fam Physician 2006;52:1574-5.e1-5.
  • Arman M, Rehnsfeldt A, Lindholm L, Hamrin E, Eriksson K. Suffering related to health care: a study of breast cancer patients' experiences. Int J Nurs Pract 2004;10(6):248-56.