Witness to suffering

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As a doctor, a lot of the care that I provide has nothing to do with prescribing medications or performing procedures. Sure, they form a significant part of my training and my day to day work. However, there are also many times where all I can provide for the patients is my presence, to be a witness to their suffering and to create space for them to grieve and mourn.

This was a huge revelation to me in the earlier stages of training – recognizing that there are many things we can’t just “fix” in medicine, and that care doesn’t end with telling a patient “I am sorry, there is nothing we can do”. I never realized how difficult it is to be truly present to witness someone’s suffering until I had to do it myself. It is so easy to give into the temptation to comfort, or to give false hope or even mislead. At the beginning, I told myself that it is because I care deeply about the patients, and it was difficult for me to watch them suffer. However, the more I did this, the more I realized I was NOT helping these patients by quickly wrapping up their suffering in a neat package to replace it with something prettier – I could see how this made them feel confused and lost. Why then, was it so hard for me to change my behavior?

Problem solving engages the prefrontal cortex of our brain – the part that allows us to reason, filter and regulate our emotions. Being forced to turn away from problem solving therefore leaves us feeling exposed, out of control and yes – vulnerable. However, in turning away from problem solving, we can truly be present and focus entirely on the suffering of the individual in front of us. In psychiatry, this is called “holding space”. Having the space to grieve without feeling pressured to go into problem solving mode can be a deeply therapeutic experience that allows one to just “be” and not be judged.

Think about our daily lives – how often do we simply listen to our friends, family or significant others and be fully present to witness their experiences? As children, how many of us had the luxury of this experience when we tried to share difficult experiences with our parents?

I tried to imagine what it would feel like to have someone fully present to witness my suffering, to have an understanding of how this could help my patients. My mind shifted to when I pray or meditate at my altar. Sometimes, I am looking for answers – but more often than not, what I desire is to have the time to sit in my grief and to let it all out, and to have someone sit WITH me in my grief. The sheer presence of my goddesses and spirit guides had always comforted me in my darkest times, and this is what I could do for my patients when there is nothing else I could offer as a doctor. Simply being present in their suffering was a service I could provide in those dark moments.

Now, when I deliver bad news, I sit with them, quietly, with a tissue box in my hand. I stay present with their grief, and in doing so I hold space for them to process their suffering.

It is true that this is much harder with family and close friends – those who we consider part of ourselves and can make us feel particularly vulnerable when they share their suffering. Practice makes perfect and I am still working on it.

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