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Emails to my Therapist

When a Loved One Is Suffering

Dear Nicholas, I’m losing a very dear friend to a terrible disease. Her story is not mine to tell and so I guard her privacy, but need to say: this is hard. Right now it’s not loss that’s worst; it’s knowing that a loved one is suffering.

There is nothing at all that I can do to make it better.

I came downstairs just now–it’s 3:13 a.m.– thinking if I write this I can stop the thoughts going round and round. They don’t help anybody, these thoughts…

Efforts at prayer–which are all that’s available that might help –they slide back into thoughts of her suffering.

My not sleeping isn’t doing anybody any good.

I know what you have to say about loss: the spirit lives on and be grateful for having the person in your life. But right now her spirit is afflicted and it’s hard to shift into gratitude.

I want to see the point of such suffering as my friend’s. Is there anything to be learned–for her or me?  Is my unhappiness about her pain supposed to show me how much I care about her? I already knew that. Neither of us needs what’s happening now.

Wildly extreme images of witnessing pain keep coming to mind: Mary at the foot of the cross, terrible Holocaust stories, a father whose two children were being tortured by a dictator’s regime setting himself on fire on the steps of the prison. I read about that father years ago and haven’t been able to forget him.

These are horrible thoughts.  I feel apologetic for even revealing them.

I’m not stumbling onto any insights about this, which is always my hope in these notes.

I’m going to give sleep another try.

More later–or maybe I’ll regret sending this at all. Don’t know.






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  • November 16, 2020 at 12:55 pm Reply

    Peggy, your friend’s suffering, and your suffering for her, remind me of a reality whose pervasive inclusiveness has become impossible for me to deny, overlook, or explain away: every living creature suffers, and suffering is our lot, from our own, our friends, our pets, road-killed deer and squirrels and others’ pets, to vegetative life as well, when we feel the living bark of a beloved tree. Don’t fret for your friend, don’t agonize yourself. Be still and love and silently grieve.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 16, 2020 at 3:25 pm Reply

      Why silently, Morris? I usually tend that way myself, which is why I thought I might regret this post in the morning. But I’m not sure the silence is such a good thing. Again, I don’t know.

      • Morris Dean
        November 16, 2020 at 4:12 pm Reply

        Well, for YOU, I don’t know either. But rending the air (venting?) isn’t MY way, at any rate. Perhaps I was taking a liberty in recommending a personal practice for which I have no Platonic or Aristotelian (or any other) justification. Perhaps others reading this stream will tell us THEIR ways of suffering.

        • Peggy Payne
          November 16, 2020 at 4:29 pm Reply

          Not taking a liberty at all, Morris! I welcome conversation here. I just wondered if there was a reason for the silence choice, other than it simply being your style. Until I started writing these posts it was my style. In person, it still is.

          • Morris Dean
            November 16, 2020 at 4:39 pm Reply

            Ha, and I DO say a lot of things in my fictional guise as “Goines” on Moristotle & Co., that I might not say otherwise. []

            • Peggy Payne
              November 16, 2020 at 4:57 pm Reply

              Blogging is paradoxically disinhibiting it seems.

      • Morris Dean
        November 16, 2020 at 5:48 pm Reply

        Ha, blogging disinhibiting, what a thought! But, seriously, the exchange about “Why silently?” has provoked deeper thought on my part. I realized that I am surely influenced by the example of the silent acceptance of non-human animals to their fate, whether the antelope to the cheetah, the deer to the wolf, or the beloved dog as it suffers its cancer (the way my Siegfried did in March 2019). And I recall the harrowing scent in a movie about the Intuits in which a declining (and no longer useful) elder is simply left stranded on a chunk of floating ice to die (in silence). Silence in these contexts (and it can be our own personal context, and, I think, IS our personal context) is the acquiescence of one’s inescapable finish. Complaint seems not only futile but unseemly, somehow.

        • Peggy Payne
          November 16, 2020 at 6:19 pm Reply

          Yes, I once saw a man dying in his bed that had been carried to water’s edge of the Ganges. A silence surrounded him.

          But animals do sometimes complain when they’re in pain. Night before last Bob and I listened to one coyote howling. Maybe he was cheering or saying you-hoo, but that was hard to believe. What a wild raw sound!

          • Morris Dean
            November 17, 2020 at 12:25 pm Reply

            Seeing an animal in pain – whether complaining or not – grieves me. A neighbor leaves his dog chained outside all day, and I want to go to the dog and comfort it.

            • Peggy Payne
              November 17, 2020 at 5:41 pm Reply

              Pain is hard to watch, no matter who’s suffering. Which is a good thing, I think.

              • Morris Dean
                November 17, 2020 at 9:48 pm Reply

                Yes, a good thing. Unlike for psychopaths, who notoriously get off on delivering pain to their (often) chained-up victims….

  • Judy Carrino
    November 16, 2020 at 2:43 pm Reply

    Don’t regret….it is necessary to acknowledge our pain and our suffering due to another’s pain. I am sorry for your inevitable loss, Peggy. I have lost so many good, old friends and the pain of those losses remains, no matter how many years ago they happened. I hope you can find peace in your good memories.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 16, 2020 at 3:22 pm Reply

      Thanks, Judy!

  • Andy Arnold
    November 16, 2020 at 4:29 pm Reply

    The pain of loss of a loved one helps remind me to live in the moment. Life is temporary and precious. The people in our lives we care for are also here for a short time. We must acknowledge our feelings for each other when we have the chance, and get solace in the fact we crossed each other’s paths, and had that time together. However, this does not make the pain less, or the sorrow more
    bearable. It simply gives context to the emotions. How you choose to reflect on your relationship, remembering the good times, and relishing what was meaningful in your exchanges, gives evidence of why you are saddened to lose them. Time lessens the hurt, and reflection may offer comfort to you when the sadness returns.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 16, 2020 at 4:31 pm Reply

      Thanks, Andy. Very wise. And it’s the loved one’s ongoing pain that I find hardest right now.

  • alcooke
    November 17, 2020 at 3:08 am Reply

    I once reveled in philosophical attempts to understand. Eventually, I understood that there are things greater than my understanding. Call me agnostic, but I leave it to others to explain. What I observe is that you suffer because your friend suffers. We call that empathy. And calling it that or anything else does little to ease the ache. Yet suffering can ease with time. And for some it does not. I had a friend who slowly, consciously drank himself to death because he could not accept the death of his son. We handle these things in different ways. We can indulge grief and wallow in it. We can indulge it and use it as an opportunity for growth. (Peggy, I suspect this is the path you are on.) We can deny it while it works on us. And some seem to have little experience of sorrow and grief. I suspect that grieving and joy are different faces of the same multifaceted stone. Some facets are more enjoyable than others. And we only get the whole stone.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 17, 2020 at 3:55 am Reply

      You’re still a philosopher/seminarian, Al–closely connected to the plant business. I’m sorry about your friend, too. I know I also do a lot of denying it while it works on me.

  • November 19, 2020 at 4:37 am Reply

    an empty comment box is my wordless response.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 19, 2020 at 4:45 am Reply

      An appropriate response, Bob.

  • Lee Grohse
    November 20, 2020 at 3:29 pm Reply

    I know we are meaning-giving animals, and it does help us organize ourselves cognitively and emotionally. But my guess is that this meaning giving. is best done retrospectively after the pain, the grief have faded some. When I’m in place of active loss or pain, I find all the wisdom people share with me empty at best and infuriating at worst. I try to accept it in the spirit in which it is offered: their attempt to comfort, but the content is generally useless to me. We imagine there is a correct way to do something like see a friend suffer or lose someone we love dearly, and since we belong to that ilk of people who try to master our fate and our feelings and our thoughts we try to do it. We already have societal rituals to keep a lot of it organized and in bounds, so why not let those govern our public response and leave our private and personal responses free to have their disorganized and intense but short way with us? Why does what we do have to be “useful”? Why silent? Why philosophically appropriate? I wonder if the more primal responses should just not prevail for a while-pace the floor, cry, howl, curse God, rend the garments.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 20, 2020 at 8:19 pm Reply

      Bob ever tells me that I seek a reason for everything, Lee, and that I see everything as psychological. Seems reasonable to me. But you’re right: a period of unreason is cathartic and relieving.

  • Morris Dean
    November 20, 2020 at 4:27 pm Reply

    How does a visitor to this post see ALL of the comments? I’m shown only a small portion of them, and I can see no option to expose them all to my perusal. THANKS in advance for assistance.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 20, 2020 at 8:18 pm Reply

      Morris, I don’t know how to assist. When I go as a visitor, I see all the comments. Does anyone else have trouble seeing comments? Or know how to help?

      • Morris Dean
        November 22, 2020 at 3:42 pm Reply

        One thing I’ve discovered to do is to check the web address I’ve been sent to and experiment with editing it a bit. This works well for me. The staff education in HTML coding that I was able to pursue as an employee of UNC General Administration (from 1997 until 2012, after my 30 years at IBM) has been invaluable to me as a blogger and follower of other blogs and websites.

  • Morris Dean
    November 25, 2020 at 2:14 am Reply

    I just came across a paragraph in the Guardian article “The princess myth: Hilary Mantel on Diana” that reads enough like a comment on Peggy’s post for me to justify sharing it here:

    A deathbed, once, was a location dense with meaning, a room packed with the invisible presences of angels, devils, ancestors. But now, as many of us don’t believe in an afterlife, we envisage no final justice, no ultimate meaning, and have no support for our sense of loss when “positivity” falters. Perhaps we are baffled by the process of extinction. In recent years, death narratives have attained a popularity they have not held for centuries. Those with a terminal illness scope it out in blogs….

    When Diana died, a crack appeared in a vial of grief, and released a salt ocean. A nation took to the boats. Vast crowds gathered to pool their dismay and sense of shock. As Diana was a collective creation, she was also a collective possession. The mass-mourning offended the taste police. It was gaudy, it was kitsch – the rotting flowers in their shrouds, the padded hearts of crimson plastic, the teddy bears and dolls and broken-backed verses. But all these testified to the struggle for self-expression of individuals who were spiritually and imaginatively deprived, who released their own suppressed sorrow in grieving for a woman they did not know. The term “mass hysteria” was a facile denigration of a phenomenon that eluded the commentators and their framework of analysis. They did not see the active work the crowds were doing. Mourning is work. It is not simply being sad. It is naming your pain. It is witnessing the sorrow of others, drawing out the shape of loss. It is natural and necessary and there is no healing without it.


    • Peggy Payne
      November 25, 2020 at 2:34 pm Reply

      She says it well.

  • Morris Dean
    November 25, 2020 at 1:32 pm Reply

    “The Royals” have cropped up again pertinently to our conversation here: “The Losses We Share: Perhaps the path to healing begins with three simple words: Are you OK?,” by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, Nov. 25 NY Times.
    “So this Thanksgiving, as we plan for a holiday unlike any before — many of us separated from our loved ones, alone, sick, scared, divided and perhaps struggling to find something, anything, to be grateful for — let us commit to asking others, “Are you OK?” As much as we may disagree, as physically distanced as we may be, the truth is that we are more connected than ever because of all we have individually and collectively endured this year.
    “We are adjusting to a new normal where faces are concealed by masks, but it’s forcing us to look into one another’s eyes — sometimes filled with warmth, other times with tears. For the first time, in a long time, as human beings, we are really seeing one another.”

  • August 4, 2021 at 10:28 pm Reply

    […] have other happy medical news.  The friend whose serious illness and medical crisis I was grieving some months ago has rallied. She’s back to nearly normal, feels good, and still has good […]

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