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Lessons in healing spiritual pain: what really hurts?

on March 18, 2012

Who we are is enough.

Once a month, I meet with a couple of minister friends to encourage one another in our ministries and to simply catch up. We also read and discuss books to have a starting point for our conversations and to hopefully learn some new things. Right now we are reading The American Book of Living and Dying: Lessons in Healing Spiritual Pain by Richard Groves and Henriette Anne Klauser (guess who picked that book? Yes, it was me – the first “hospice”- like book we’ve read so far. And yes, I do recommend it).

At our last meeting, one of my friends pointed out this quote from the book: “The sick live in a different ‘time zone’ where every little thing is magnified. Things do not take on more meaning; the meaning is always there, we just do not pay attention. Heightened awareness is part of the gift.” (p. 104)

A lot of people think that working in hospice care is a depressing thing. At least that’s what I hear from a lot of folks when I tell them I’m a hospice chaplain. And it probably would be depressing if it weren’t for my genuine belief that end of life — whether it be the end of a long life or the tragic shortening of life by disease — brings opportunities, even gifts.

Some of the opportunities at the end of life may include reconciliation, leaving a legacy, meaningful conversations with loved ones, and even growth or transformation. One important (perhaps the most important of all) is that of healing spiritual (meaning-related, existential, relatedness, etc) pain.

When a terminal disease strikes or the end of life is near, it is normal for people to hope and pray for a miracle. I had this same inclination when my father was diagnosed with ALS. I just wanted my father to be rid of this disease and healthy again. Even though I had reflected many times on the subject of divine healing or miracles, this time it was personal (or more personal than it had ever been). It shook my theology again.

I must have prayed a thousand different prayers for my dad. Some for endurance, some for healing, some for discernment, most or all of them for peace. When physical healing doesn’t happen, sometimes people find comfort in their belief that their loved one will be healed in heaven. Sometimes people tell me, “My [loved one] will be healed one way or another.” I think that, for many people, heaven/eternal life is considered the ultimate healing from disease and the end of suffering.

That is fine and good. Here is where I differ: the ultimate healing may not be from physical illness but from spiritual pain. And maybe, just maybe, a terminal illness (or end of life) is exactly what is needed for this healing to happen. I am not saying God sends disease to people or that people deserve disease in any way. But I do believe that some of the best or deepest healing can happen in the crux of disease.

When I started out as a chaplain, I worked with the assumption that disease causes spiritual pain. When people are no longer able to participate in roles and activities they once found meaningful, and when they are preparing to say goodbye to loved ones, they are sure to experience spiritual pain. Now that I’ve been in this work for a few years (and especially since my own experience with my dad), I have come to the realization that life threatening disease may only shed light on the spiritual pain that has been there all the time.

One time I read someone’s description of spiritual care as making the connection between what hurts with what really hurts. It’s that nagging pain we come back to every now and then, the one that keeps us up at night. The very one we try to mask with our achievements and roles, with our labels/titles and gadgets.

Now imagine everything you have clung to as a means of identity is taken from you: your work, your ability to do things, maybe even the ability to think. That is what disease does to people. If we attach our sense of self-worth to any of those things, we are at peril of losing any sense of meaning. And that is why disease (and any other crisis) can also be a great teacher. If we are quickly cured from the disease, we might simply go back to attaching our worth to our job or role as this or that. But if we are not cured, then we are forced to face our pain and to come to terms with who we are at our core. When everything is stripped away, all that remains is our soul.

We don’t have to wait until we meet a crisis to start befriending the pain. I’ll confess my own pain: it’s that of not doing enough to matter, not being enough to be remembered. In the end, I think we all want to know our lives have mattered.

What really hurts for you?


7 responses to “Lessons in healing spiritual pain: what really hurts?

  1. marleneheart says:

    Oh so true Alice! I love your post and I think it is a very special work you do by working in a hospice. In my writing I have once discovered what amazing gift there is if a person – by the end of her or his time – can let go of everything and finally start to embrace who they truly are. Then they are at peace. Have you ever experienced this?
    And yes, everybody wants to be remembered that their life has had an impact in some way, and no matter what you have done in your life – it has always mattered. We touch each others life..even if we believe we don’t.
    Really great post!

  2. Kirk Hall says:

    Great reflection, Alice. I’ve come to see illness as sometimes working like the “refiner’s fire” and serving the purpose of bringing a deeper spirituality to a person’s life.

  3. J. Fabulous says:

    What about the concept that pain either spiritual or emotional causes desease?

    • I also believe that is possible! I thought about adding that to the mix of thoughts but didn’t want to take the post into too many different directions… def. something to think about, though!

  4. […] Today I am reposting an entry I made for my hospice organization’s blog. This entry was based on a previous post I made on this blog, “Lessons in Healing Spiritual Pain: What Really Hurts,” which you can read in its entirety here. […]

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