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Tragedy Is Part of Life; What We Often Lack Is Meaning

One of the most humbling things about medicine is being forced to confront the painful and difficult matters that make up this life. I have one more week in the acute assessment unit on an aged psychiatry ward. There are sob stories here aplenty, enough tears and hurt to drown the nation, no doubt. Last week I admitted a Polish lady who spent the cream of her teenage years, aged 15 to 18, as a forced labourer in World War II Germany. She was forcibly taken by the Wermacht and never again saw …

  1. Percival

    Tales like that put one’s own petty concerns back where they belong.

    Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.

    – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

  2. Indaba

    My father went through three years of brain damage at the end of his life and my mother would play the Scottish songs they enjoyed when courting.

    To think that life just ends, gone, is bleak. My father’s last day with me  was very sad but beautiful. He was there when I was born and I was there as he left, and the room filled with sunshine. He had given me everything and more. The Chaplain was there to comfort and then the church gave life and death purpose.  

  3. Songwriter

    Thank you for this post.

  4. dash

    Your stories hit too close to home for comfort. I’ll only say that the promise of passage to an eternal and peaceful life softens, but still doesn’t remove the intense pain of seeing a loved one’s mind, will and emotions annihilated at the threshold of that passage.

  5. DocJay

    Very moving stories.   I have a few tipping over the edge right now and it’s so darn sad.    Folks I’ve known for 15 years and I couldn’t stop the deluge.  Aricept, Namenda, Exelon, and every supplement known to help after genetic testing and UCSF/Cleveland Clinic specialists have only delayed the inevitable dissolution of once amazing personalities and intellects.  

  6. The King Prawn

    Beautifully written. Thank you.

    It makes me wonder if the body is merely the intersection of the immaterial with the material. Faith tells me that the whole of a person is still fully extant even when those of us who maintain a complete connection to the material world are cut off from parts of a person whose bonds to this world are loosening and slipping away.

  7. raycon and lindacon

    God is our Author and our completion.  We become and then we are not.  @TKP notes that the body is the intersection of the immaterial with the material.  We live in a spiritual universe which has a physical manifestation. 

    This short experience of the physical, as Antipodius notes, requires meaning.  Tragedy is a disruption of the physical part of our life, and sadly, for some it is also the tearing of the fabric of their spiritual existence.  But God knows that too.  His Grace is His evidence that we are weak and cannot endure on our own.

  8. katievs

    A lady I know is so afflicted with dementia that none of her sentences make sense. They are mostly random words strung together with here and there a recognizable phrase. And yet, here’s what radiates from her still, in her dying days: A sense of humor, kindness, friendliness, grace, gratitude. To see her and interact with her is to know she is a good woman, who led an admirable life.  It’s a gift to be with her.

    Fake John Galt: Antipodious: stories such as these are the reason why I believe in end of life treatments (assisted suicide).  We will “put down” an animal when it’s health is gone and call it humane but will not do the same for another human being.  

    End-of-life “treatments” horrify me.  They are a radical denial of the mystery of life, the meaningfulness of human suffering, and the authority of the Author of Life.

    Our moral task is to serve and cherish life, not to master it, not to snuff it out when we judge it worthless.

    But, like antipodius, I understand how the awfulness of pain and suffering can make that seem like mercy.

  9. Peter Halpin

    Powerful post. Pope Benedict has written on this in one of his encyclicals (which one escapes me at the moment). In any case, he essentially poses this challenge to the unbeliever who bases his lack of faith on the problem of evil: take a situation such as the one in this post, or the extreme suffering of a child, or whatever horrible circumstance one may experience. Once faith in God is cast aside because of the cruel reality of suffering, what is one left with? Despair. The existence of God, of a transcendent being, allows for the possibility (indeed promises it in Christian understanding) of hope fulfilled. As an earlier poster pointed out, this may do absolutely nothing to ease the pain that is experienced within the span of suffering, but I it is a powerful consideration for those whose faith is strained due to pain, suffering, and loss. 

  10. Richard Fulmer

    In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl tells the story of an elderly man whose wife had died.  He had been inconsolable for some time and came to Frankl for help.  Frankl asked him to imagine what his wife would be going through had he died first.  The old man said that it would have been devastating for her.  Not only were they both very much in love, but she depended on him for care and support.  Frankl replied that the pain he was feeling now was the price he had to pay so that his wife did not have to face that devastation.  From then on, the elderly man was able to cope with his loss.   Sometimes there is meaning even in terrible loss.

  11. Douglas
    Fake John Galt: Antipodious: stories such as these are the reason why I believe in end of life treatments (assisted suicide).  We will “put down” an animal when it’s health is gone and call it humane but will not do the same for another human being.  The world is a strange place. · 9 hours ago

    With few exceptions, men are not animals.

  12. Mollie Hemingway
    C

    My dad is a Lutheran pastor. When I was in Kindergarten, my mother went back to work. I went to a sitter in the afternoons before my siblings got home. But some days my dad would take me on his “calls” — visits to hospitals, hospice centers and homes where shut-ins lived. He would bring the sacrament to them and they’d go through the liturgy together. Many of them enjoyed having a little 5-year-old around, too.

    I learned so much from that year, young as I was. It’s always stayed with me the love that family members and friends showed to people as they prepared for death or dealt with long-term disability. Given that death happens to each of us and is all around us, it’s kind of surprising how well we hide it from popular culture — at least in any meaningful way.

  13. katievs
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: 

    I learned so much from that year, young as I was. It’s always stayed with me the love that family members and friends showed to people as they prepared for death or dealt with long-term disability. Given that death happens to each of us and is all around us, it’s kind of surprising how well we hide it from popular culture — at least in any meaningful way. · 0 minutes ago

    Mollie, I have long thought of this as one of the serious deprivations of contemporary life and culture.  We have much too little acquaintance with death and dying.    I think I was past 35 before someone I really knew and loved died. 

    I am so grateful for modern medicine and for longer life-expectancy.  But still, as you say, death comes for all of us.  If would be good if we thought of it more, and came to understand it better.  We need the perspective to live life well.

    That’s partly what drove me to volunteer with hospice.

  14. Sleepless in Wisconsin
    Fake John Galt: Antipodious: stories such as these are the reason why I believe in end of life treatments (assisted suicide).  We will “put down” an animal when it’s health is gone and call it humane but will not do the same for another human being.  The world is a strange place. · 10 hours ago

    Even stranger here in liberal Madison, WI where people band together to pour thousands of dollars into saving an abused pet and work to find it a “loving home that can care for a special needs pet.”  At work, I’ve seen requests go out for people to drive from Minneapolis to Madison to bring one of these pets to a vet that would do surguries to keep it alive.  Meanwhile, these same caring people dismiss “special needs people.” 

    As a boy in rural Kansas, when we took our dog to the vet we got two price quotes: one to repair and one to put down.  Someday soon, the vet won’t be able to make that offer…  but all hospitals will be required to do so. 

  15. Tom Meyer, Ed.
    C

    Thank you, Antipodius.  That was heartbreaking.

    katievs:

    Among the “evidences” for religious belief is the experience that it makes sense out of what is otherwise meaningless.  It lends dignity and hope, beauty and nobility even, to the entire range of human experience.

    This could almost be Exhibit A in my case that it’s easier to argue for religion’s goodness (no small thing that) than for its veracity.

    I hope, I sincerely hope that there is something beyond this world, preferably where justice and punishment are meted out to the wicked and mercy and peace to the virtuous.  But I have no assurance — no faith — that such a thing exists.  Perhaps the Universe is simply is simply a capricious and ultimately meaningless place that can rob a good man of his wits and his wife of her life’s partner for no reason other than the mechanics of biology and chemistry.  I’d prefer the former reality to the latter, but that seems like a poor method to evaluate the possibilities.

  16. Tom Meyer, Ed.
    C
    Richard Fulmer: In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl tells the story of an elderly man whose wife had died.  He had been inconsolable for some time and came to Frankl for help.  Frankl asked him to imagine what his wife would be going through had he died first.  The old man said that it would have been devastating for her.  Not only were they both very much in love, but she depended on him for care and support.  Frankl replied that the pain he was feeling now was the price he had to pay so that his wife did not have to face that devastation.  From then on, the elderly man was able to cope with his loss.   Sometimes there is meaning even in terrible loss. 

    And not necessarily contingent on God’s existence.

    God lends cohesion and direction to our experience of meaning, but we experience these things regardless of his existence.  I love my fiance just as much on the days I’m an agnostic as when I’m a Deist/Ethical Monotheist.

  17. Tom Meyer, Ed.
    C
    katievs

    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: 

    I learned so much from that year, young as I was. It’s always stayed with me the love that family members and friends showed to people as they prepared for death or dealt with long-term disability. Given that death happens to each of us and is all around us, it’s kind of surprising how well we hide it from popular culture — at least in any meaningful way.

    Mollie, I have long thought of this as one of the serious deprivations of contemporary life and culture.  We have much too little acquaintance with death and dying.    I think I was past 35 before someone I really knew and loved died. 

    I am so grateful for modern medicine and for longer life-expectancy.  But still, as you say, death comes for all of us.  If would be good if we thought of it more, and came to understand it better.

    Agreed on all points.

  18. Mama Toad

    How do we treat the most vulnerable among us? Do we recognize our own humanity in theirs? Do we welcome them, comfort them, seek to suffer alongside them? Assisted suicide is the antithesis of solidarity.

    For the past 4 years we toads have been visiting a nursing home with many patients with dementia. My youngest was a week old when we first visited, and has grown up knowing these old people. From week to week they can’t always remember my name. Some of them can’t speak well at all, but they all remember the words of the prayers. They worry about the young people moving too fast and hurting themselves, and their eyes are constantly on the children. We pray the Rosary and then often sing songs or recite poetry. We tell them about our week and thank them for their prayers. And occasionally we attend their funeral Masses, with two tadpoles serving as altar servers. 

    This past week we saw an ad in our church bulletin that the director of activities was looking for people to read stories to the folks. My two oldest sons asked me immediately if they could do that too. Deo gratias. 

  19. katievs

    I agree, Antipodius.  Among the “evidences” for religious belief is the experience that it makes sense out of what is otherwise meaningless.  It lends dignity and hope, beauty and nobility even, to the entire range of human experience.

    This week I go the funeral of the father of a dear friend.  A man who raised 10 children.  I will witness all their grief and all their love and all their deep, deep faith.

    I also volunteer at the bedside of a woman with dementia, dying of cancer.  She cared for tenderly every day by her husband of 58 years.

    He worked counter intelligence in Europe in the early days of the Cold War.

    Sic transit gloriam mundi.

  20. AQ

    Thank you for this.  My husband and I are waiting now for a telephone call from  our son in law, hoping to hear that our daughter is ok and not having an emergency Caesarian tonight.  She is only 6 months along. We are hundreds of miles away, helping to care for my mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s , and miraculously, mom seems to know that something terrible is going on.  Our only hope tonight is in God.  

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