When Troubled Hearts Meet: Transforming Suffering

Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Maria. We tend to have conversations about serious stuff which I love, about life and art, our mutual scars, what we think of the world outside. I always seem to come away from our visits feeling very energized, with lots to think and write about, and yesterday was no different.

We had been discussing past and present hurts, how we were dealing with them. Maria asked me at one point whether I had any examples from my own life where I felt suffering had been transformed into good for someone else, or where sharing the story of such an experience helped another person. I believe that it can, that’s it’s often the only thing or purpose to be found redeeming in suffering, personal or on a global scale.

Unfortunately, it’s rarely apparent at the time; I think only afterward can any good emerge if the person or persons affected are able to learn from and then transform it into something else.

I didn’t have any other story than my own yesterday to offer. But on my drive home I was reminded of a woman I took care of last summer in the hospital. She was a former police officer down in New York City, and had lost her husband on 9/11 when the World Trade Center collapsed. They had a son, and for years she had been trying to care for him in the wake of that event and the personal devastation it caused her. She was not well anymore, unstable, often homeless, experiencing terrible anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

She arrived at the hospital with a woman she was staying with, a kind person who had taken in her and her son and given them a place to stay. She looked so young, so much younger than myself, but we were about the same age. I was only there to ask her about any medications she was taking, but we ended up talking a long time, the three of us, about the trauma she had and was still experiencing in her life, her concern for her son growing up with “a crazy mother, ” as she put it. She said she often thought of dying, that he would be better off without her.

I felt very humbled talking to her. I had been been going through a lot of my own personal, painful stuff that I thought would never end. But the universe always comes through to remind you there are many worse stories than your own.

Underneath that, though, if you can see it, is the deeper message that you are not the only one, not alone. I had never been through anything exactly like what she had, I told her, surviving that day, losing her husband in it all, trying to raise a child afterward, being homeless. But I did understand what it felt like to feel your life coming apart, spiraling out of control, down and away from you into a hopeless abyss you never thought you’d come out of alive. I did know what it was like to feel so badly that you didn’t want to be here anymore. That, I did get.

She was quiet as she listened to me describe events in my life I hadn’t thought I’d recover from, new ones and old. She stopped crying as I spoke, which to me meant something was happening inside her, some part was being reached, touched, learning that her suffering was not unique even if it was different than mine. The awful feelings that arise, the destruction and chaos that follow, those are almost always the same.

I even shared with her about going on anti-depressant medications, something I am still ashamed of at times, but that they had helped me. And I had seen them work for other people, calming the brain and getting it’s chemistry working well again after months or years of being unbalanced in such a dark place. I also said I believed they were only part of the solution, though, that a person has to re-train their thinking, put positive thoughts and experiences back into the equation. And it’s really hard work, each and every day. When you finally get to a point where you can see and think clearly, that’s really just the beginning.

When I got to the part of my story where I told her I thought that suffering only leads to good when we try to transform it for helping others, I felt very naive all over again. Her story seemed so much worse than mine. But I watched her face, and I knew she wasn’t thinking about that as I’d feared.

She started crying again a bit, asking me how I thought she could do it, make it happen, learn to be a whole person again. I told her I didn’t have all the answers, and wasn’t a hundred percent sure about anything. But what I did know was that she was here, talking with me, having been supported by a least one other person in the world– the woman who gave her and her son a chance, who brought her in to the hospital. Now, with me, there were two.

This moment might be the gift she said she was looking for, I told her, the one I was talking about when I said good things can be born out of bad ones. And maybe she could try to start right then and there, seeing that even in our darkest times there can still be hope.

For me, it was one of those rare experiences feeling the visceral connectedness of lives, reminding me of my own beliefs and ideas, bringing it all back home again. It was also the finest moment I’ve had as a nurse in a long time, just by being present, being there to listen.

I don’t know what happened to the woman after I left the bedside. It’s been months now since that night, but I still think about her pretty often, wondering how she is, hoping she is on the path of recovery, that she and her son are safe. And whether or not my story ultimately meant anything to her or helped her transform her suffering, I’ll probably never know. I will just have to be at peace with the knowledge that I tried, that I took the chance to see our moment together as an opportunity to share my pain, what I often thought I would never survive, and make it into a gift instead.

I wish I had gotten to tell this to Maria yesterday, as I know she would have appreciated it and understood. Such a thing seems better to relate to someone in person.

But here it is now, traveling out through my keystrokes with the intention that my meeting with the woman in the hospital, our stories now entwined together, might help another person transform their own losses, their suffering, and one day make their way back to the light.