The Uses of Suffering

By Sandra Ferrin Strange

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    My neighbor Glenna was truly beautiful—a woman of grace and graciousness. Her life seemed full of promise: she had a loving husband, six young children, innumerable talents, enviable material blessings, and a deep foundation of faith. But Glenna was dying of cancer.

    In contrast, my grandmother was no longer herself. Advanced arthritis made most movement painful. Atherosclerosis and a number of small strokes had made an intelligent, caring woman querulous, demanding, manipulative. She lived in a haze where time lost meaning. Yesterday’s call from a loved one seemed weeks ago, while last month’s visit seemed yesterday’s. Most of the time she knew where she was and who I was, but she became disoriented easily and barely remembered her dead husband or her past life.

    Glenna, cut off so soon from her life, and Grammy, her body outliving her mind, died within months of each other. I have often thought that if Grammy were herself again, if she could have examined those last years of her life, she would gladly have given those years to Glenna.

    Since their deaths several years ago, again and again in hospitals and rest homes, I’ve confronted the prolonged pain and severe suffering so many seem called to go through. Some degree of suffering can be rationalized. Our pain and dependence can mature much of what is good in us, calling forth such qualities as patience, humility, and faith. Such suffering tests our ability to endure to the end—and to endure with courage and grace.

    But I have seen suffering that transcends any rationalization. Our souls seem to cry out and ask what the “Baby Does” of this world learn, born twisted and incomplete, spending their brief lives wailing and writhing in agony. In a rest home I visited over a period of three years, I watched Alzheimer’s disease transform a sweet, coherent lady into a frightened shell of a being, crying out in bewilderment, rocking back and forth, her empty gaze reflecting the deterioration of her mind. What does “enduring to the end” have to do with such suffering? The pain and the mindless waste of potential seem far out of proportion to any concept of growth or testing of the sufferers.

    Yet, though I can offer no easy answers, no explanations for such pain, I know what I have learned from the example of those who have suffered with faith and patience.

    A number of years ago, as a relatively new Relief Society president, I felt apprehensive about visiting Gene, my predecessor, who was enduring an advanced, painful cancer. Gene’s talents for loving, however, weren’t dulled by her discomfort. She focused on my counselors and me, genuinely interested in what we were doing. We found ourselves swapping corny jokes with her. She enjoyed laughter, even though laughing brought her obvious pain.

    Over the months, we enjoyed visiting Gene. She continued to look outward, loving others, never complaining of the excruciating pain of the cancer that ate at her spine, stomach, and brain. Even near the end she refused much sedation, choosing to face death awake and aware. She presented me a challenging example of faith and loving concern despite overwhelming pain.

    I learned continually from another friend, eighty-year-old Sister Vida. Confined to a nursing home because of the danger of injury to bones made brittle from leukemia, she suffered constant back pain, along with the discomforts of a chronic digestive condition and a bad heart. With all of her problems, she turned outward to serve others with love. She made it a point, when she was able, to visit others at the rest home who needed cheering up. She related an experience she’d had one day with a woman who had suffered a stroke and could no longer talk. “I sat and held her hand and talked to her,” she said. “I knew she understood what I said. I just let her know I cared about her.”

    Sister Vida illustrates another effect of suffering. It not only tests the sufferer, but it tests, sometimes more rigorously, those who love the sufferer. Sister Vida’s husband suffered a crippling stroke some years before he died. Although his stroke had changed him from a kind, loving husband to a sometimes irascible and sullen stranger, Sister Vida cared for him at home until her own health made her efforts impossible. She then traveled the ten miles each way to the convalescent home once a day to feed and tend her husband. I think it’s safe to say she passed that test.

    When I faced a similar challenge with my grandmother, I didn’t do as well. While I had but one child, I visited Grammy in the nursing home for several hours during the week, then took her home to attend church and eat dinner with our family on Sundays. As I added more children and she became more infirm, losing control of her bodily functions, her Sunday visits to our home became our visits to her “home.” Then our twice-a-week visits dwindled to once-a-week visits.

    I remember one of those last visits with guilt. I had stopped in during the week for a brief visit because I was near the rest home on an errand. Grammy was in the dining room eating and didn’t seem too conscious of her surroundings that day. I visited with her for a few minutes, then stood up to leave. She was very disturbed and said agitatedly, “I guess no one loves me anymore.”

    I felt justified in leaving her. I had what I thought at the time were more pressing demands to attend to, and I knew I’d be in to see her for a genuine visit soon. I didn’t recognize that her special suffering was mental and that she needed me then. Within a week she stopped eating. Although the attendants at the rest home force-fed her, she grew progressively weaker; within a month, she died. I have always felt a special guilt about her death. I had put concern for the mundane demands of my life above far more important human appeals.

    People in pain—especially people we love—test that dimension of us. Their need forces us to decide how much of us we’re really willing to give, how much of our time and emotional and physical resources we will sacrifice for them. I think often of my sister-in-law, Judy. Her daughter Stephanie was born with severe cerebral palsy. She can do almost nothing for herself, nor can she communicate except in grunts and cries. I have watched Judy feed her daughter, now twelve years old. She must patiently spoon each bite into Stephanie’s mouth, replacing the same morsel over and over again because Stephanie has so little control over her swallowing. Judy cares for Stephanie constantly and lovingly.

    Stephanie’s need serves to reveal much goodness in Judy, demanding depths of patience and self-sacrifice that perhaps Judy was unaware she possessed. Suffering in others can serve as a mirror, reflecting the best—and worst—qualities within us.

    When my neighbor Glenna was dying, I found myself hesitant to visit with her. I didn’t know what to say and felt awkward around her pain. Analyzing my attitude after her death, I realized that part of my awkwardness came from fear of offending and ignorance as to what she needed from me. Much of my discomfort, however, came from a fear of death and an unwillingness to face my own mortality, feelings of which I had been unaware. When I became aware of the sources of my discomfort, I began to enjoy my visits with Gene. My visits with Glenna had often been uncomfortable, but now I found myself conversing freely and openly with Gene about her fears and regrets over her impending death.

    As well as revealing and challenging our deep-seated attitudes toward living and dying, others’ suffering and pain can also show us the depth of our compassion—or our lack of it. Perhaps our truest service comes when we give to those from whom we can hope to gain no reward. As Gene lay in pain, the sisters of our ward rallied around to bring in meals for her and her husband. Over the months, some sisters contributed a welcome meal or two. Others, some for whom donating the food was a real sacrifice, took in meals again and again.

    Dolores, new in the ward and unacquainted with Gene, had lost a son to cancer not too long before. Drawing from her own experience, she visited Gene daily, ministering to needs and sharing feelings in ways not available to those of us who had not faced that particular shadow of death.

    Gene’s suffering changed my friend, a young mother, who had withdrawn into her own shell of depression with a particularly trying illness and family problems. This sister loved Gene, who had tried to help her through that dark time. Out of that love, she reached out. She visited Gene often, and when Gene became more and more helpless, my friend took on such thankless burdens as changing Gene’s bed linens and helping to bathe her. After Gene’s death, this sister continued in the path she had begun to travel; she began to reach out to serve those around her.

    Perhaps Gene’s suffering and pain helped my friend face her own problems with a different perspective. Certainly, I find that visits to Gene, Vida, and others like them force me to examine my life from a different point of view. Mundane demands and daily irritations fade into insignificance. Somehow, the seemingly unending dirty diapers, unmade beds, gritty bathrooms, and whining children that fill so much of my days seem welcome in the face of the overwhelming, inescapable pain of cancer. My unexamined values shift suddenly when I face a friend’s prolonged pain. The PTA meetings and town councils, the drive for a higher salary and the ache for elusive fulfillment—all seemingly so important—diminish in importance beside a sunset’s startling color, my three-year-old’s laughter, the temple’s consuming peace. Living fully from moment to moment becomes much more vital.

    Prolonged suffering in those around me forces me beyond easy answers and comforting platitudes. I do not know why a loving Father chooses miraculous healings for one person, only to allow another, equally faithful, to take on ceaseless burdens of suffering.

    I remember the anguish of my grandfather, dying by inches of cancer. After two years of pain, intensified by radiation treatments that made the slightest movement excruciatingly painful and that left him miserably nauseated as well, he cried out, “What have I done to deserve this?”

    We who from love or obligation must watch such suffering cannot help but feel dismay at the seeming unfairness, the injustice of undeserved, overwhelming pain. Such suffering stirs our souls. But it also stretches our faith, tests our compassion, allows us necessary reexamination of our values, and teaches us that death, far from being a dreaded specter, can also come as a welcome friend, carrying our loved one to another sphere where life can again be meaningful and fulfilling.

    Illustrated by Stephen Moore