The Challenge of Bearing Witness to Patient and Family Suffering

“How do I honor this pain so that it teaches and blesses and does not destroy?”

By Jacob Molyneux, AJN senior editor

Illustration by Neil Brennan. All rights reserved.

Illustration by Neil Brennan. All rights reserved.

This month’s Reflections essay (Why?) is by a pediatric chaplain. As the title indicates, it’s about the questions we all ask in the face of suffering and loss. The precipitating event for the author is the baffled, enraged cry of a father who has lost a child, and her own struggles with the impossibility of giving an acceptable answer—to the child’s parents, or to herself as a daily witness of loss and suffering.

How does a chaplain, or for that matter a nurse, witness the pain of patients and their families time and again and keep from either shutting down or being overwhelmed by the stress and emotion? As we’re often reminded, self-care matters or there’s nothing to give the next time: yoga, gardening, humor, family, cooking, whatever works for a person. Is it enough? Yes, and no, says the author. Here’s an excerpt: 

But why? The question lingers. It’s not so much that I need answers. I am okay with mystery and uncertainty. I recognize my limited understanding in the presence of the holy. What I need to know is how to honor my “tender heart,” as my mother calls it, this part of me that aches with those parents. Chest pain doesn’t do anyone any good. How do I honor this pain so that it teaches and blesses and does not destroy?

It’s a question worth asking for all caregivers, nurses, physicians, chaplains, and all the rest of us, sooner or later. The short essay is free, so give it a read.

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Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.

One Comment

  1. Peggy McDaniel July 14, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Beautifully written. I have tears in my eyes as I have been in that place, as a pediatric nurse and asked myself the same question. Why?

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