I have the misfortunate of recurring back spasms. I don’t know why they started, and I don’t know what triggers them, but three to five times a year, I start feeling a slight pulsing in my back, prompting me to stop everything I am doing and run to the medicine cabinet for muscle relaxants, in hopes that I can prevent the spasms from escalating. Most of the time it is too late and the pulsing increases in time and frequency until I am writhing around on the floor debilitated by the pain.
Often, I have multiple spasms a minute, for hours on end. Each episode includes two to four days of excruciating pain, then the same number of days to recover and get the pain medication out of my system. The whole routine leaves me wiped out physically and emotionally, knowing that although I made it through this round, I never know when the next round will come.
However, as every mother knows, the needs of the family don’t stop when mom is sick. Husbands still go to work, children still need to be taken care of, responsibilities still need to be managed. Mom is still mom, and it is virtually impossible to be able to stay in bed with the day-to-day realities of life that still need attention. As a result, I have had to push through excruciating pain while trying to do basic things like getting my kids to school or kissing them goodnight. (Being sick as a mom is the worst!)
I have often thought that my episodes last longer because I am not able to just lay on my back with heating pads and a healthy dose of muscle relaxants and pain medication. This theory was put to the test a couple of weeks ago. I was “lucky” that my spasms started on a Friday, meaning I didn’t have to work and that my husband would be home. I decided that for once I was just going to do nothing but lay still, apply heat to my back, and doze when I could.
I did nothing that Saturday and Sunday and my theory proved correct. The intensity of my spasms eased more quickly and went away more quickly than normal. The only difference being, I did less so I was able to rest more, resulting in fewer spasms with less intensity. My husband and kids took care of me and took care of themselves. (Since my kids are now teenagers, they are capable of being much more independent than when they were little.) It made a huge difference in how I was able to manage and recover from my latest episode.
My suffering was greatly alleviated when other people helped.
This has played out in other ways too. I think of my mom, who would drive me to the hospital in the middle of the night when the pain was too unbearable, but the kids were too young to be at home by themselves. It played out in the meals she dropped off and in the times she took care of my kids. It has played out in my husband cleaning up after me when the pain made me sick, but I was in too much pain to make it to the bathroom. In my kids warming up my heating pad.
My suffering was greatly alleviated when other people helped.
I am fortunate that the intense pain is only a total of 10 to 20 days a year. During those days, I often wonder, “What would it be like if this was my life? What if I lived with this pain every single day? Would my perspective on suffering change? Would I still think life has meaning? What about the people who do live with this kind of pain everyday?” Nothing brings life into such sharp focus as suffering.
The questions of pain and suffering are not new. For thousands of years theologians, philosophers, physicians, and just about everyone else, has had to come to terms with pain and suffering. But this is not meant to be a philosophical discussion on suffering. There are countless books available for that. This is meant to ask the question, “What are practical ways we can help alleviate the suffering of others, care for those that are suffering, and why is it important?”
Let’s start with why it is important.
Helping those that are suffering is no small thing. It can be the difference between life and death. If you think I am being dramatic, consider this: Between 2016 and 2020, over 21,500 Canadians chose physician assisted suicide to end their lives, also known as Medical Aid in Dying (MAiD). The majority of those who chose MAiD, nearly 70%, had cancer. However, the main reason they chose MAiD was not because of the physical pain they were in. It was because of things like losing the ability to engage in meaningful activities, inability to perform daily activities. Things like loss of dignity, feeling like a burden to friends and family, and even being lonely made the list. (You can read the full report here.)
While physical pain and suffering is real and terrible, it’s losing the things that give life meaning that often cause people to despair. Suffering mentally, emotionally, and spiritually are often more difficult for people to deal with than physical pain.
Take my back spasms for example. The pain is brutal, but it is much harder to deal with if I feel like no one cares. I can manage the pain better if someone drops off a meal or takes my kids out than when I feel like I am on my own.
Suffering is greatly alleviated when other people help.
We live in a culture where the goal is to avoid and remove any form of pain and suffering. It has gotten to the point where our culture thinks it is better for people to die than to face any kind of suffering. Babies are aborted for things as minor as a cleft palate or a clubbed foot or for simply being an inconvenience. People with disabilities, mental illness, or a disease diagnosis are increasingly being told that physician assisted suicide is a legitimate treatment option, even when their death is not foreseeable. We are turning into a culture that is helping people die, instead of helping people to live, and calling it compassion.
Our culture is getting it wrong. The latin root of the word compassion (compati), literally means to “suffer with.” To have compassion for someone literally means to suffer with them. It means to walk along side them and support them in their suffering. The beauty of this is that even though we may not be able to remove the cause of the suffering, we can help alleviate some of the suffering and give people hope by caring. We can help people find meaning and purpose in their suffering simply by being present.
What does suffering look like and what are ways we can show compassion?
There are different degrees of suffering and different degrees of caring. Here are some examples.
· A woman in an abusive marriage who needs help getting out. Caring may include things like helping her find a lawyer and a safe place to stay. It may involve helping her financially or babysitting while she goes for a job interview.
· A friend with cancer. Caring may include things like rides to doctor and chemo appointments, meals, a massage gift card, or a shoulder to cry on.
· A family who is taking care of a sick child or aging parent. Caregivers need support too. This may include a weekly meal, cleaning their house, or providing encouragement.
· An elderly person in a care home. This may include dropping by for a visit, making a phone call, or offering to write down their memories for them.
· A single mom who is trying to make ends meet, while playing the role of both mom and dad. This may include babysitting, inviting her over for a meal, paying for a weekend away for her and her kids.
There are so many people in our day-to-day lives who could use some care and relief from the circumstances they are in. Yet most people don’t actually ask for help when they are struggling.
I know I don’t.
I rarely let people know when I am having back spasms. When someone has been dealing with something for as long as I have been dealing with spasms (probably 10 years-ish), I think it gets old. “For the love, she’s having back spasms again?” is what I imagine they’d say, concerned they think I am being dramatic or want attention. Or perhaps it is because I’m scared they really won’t care, and the rejection would hurt more than pushing through the pain on my own. Another reason is that I don’t want to be a burden to anyone, because although spasms are difficult, they are not a terminal diagnosis or something that impacts my life once the episodes have passed.
The irony is, if I knew someone else in my situation, I would be the first person to bring a meal or give a ride or pick up groceries in order to help ease the situation. But it is difficult for people to help when they don’t know you need help.
The fact is, everyone needs help at some point, so how can we be more intentional about caring for others?
Ask. Ask your friends & family if they could use help with anything and let them know that if they every do, to let you know.
Be sensitive to promptings. I truly believe the Holy Spirit prompts us with thoughts, insight, and ideas. There are many times I have received thoughts, that seem out-of-the-blue, to do things like send a text, drop off a gift, make a call. But we need to act on that prompting.
Be generous. I have a monthly budget for acts of generosity. It’s to remind me to do things for others. Sometimes I buy gift cards for a family that is struggling financially, sometimes I order books to give away, sometimes I pay for people behind me in the drive thru. These random acts of kindness remind people that someone cares.
Create a caring circle. A caring circle is a group of people who have decided to share caring. It could be with a group of friends, siblings, a small group at church, colleagues at work, or some neighbors on your street, a caring circle is a great way to care for others, because the caring is shared and doesn’t become burdensome to one person. You care for the people in your circle but should also be intentional about caring for someone outside of your circle.
If there is one thing I have learned through my own suffering, whether it is back spasms or any of the other potentially faith-shaking experiences I have had, is that the more I feel people care, the lighter the burden becomes and the easier it is for me to push through. It is easy to lose site of caring for individuals when our culture keeps telling us that influencing the masses is how we make a difference. But having influence it not the same as making an impact. As Christians we are called to make an impact – to care for real people, with real pain, in our real lives. It is by God’s design that suffering is greatly alleviated when we suffer with.
-Susan J. Penner