Recently, I’ve been thinking about spiritual pain. Given our current circumstances, it seems like it is more prevalent than we may have imagined.
In a 2006 article in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, spiritual pain was defined as ‘a deep pain in your being … in your soul, that is not physical’ (Mako, Glek, & Poppito). I must admit that seemed a bit nebulous to me, but it has been repeated in several other articles since which have dealt with this topic. Hospice innovator Cicely Saunders brought this concept to the front of people’s thinking with her talk of ‘total pain.’
In several studies on spiritual pain, cancer patients were asked if they had it, and presented with the definition above. Many said that they did. These studies have concluded that medical teams should take spiritual pain seriously as they seek to treat the “whole person,” not just a collection of miscellaneous symptoms. The thought being that, if someone’s spirit is being addressed, then perhaps the body would respond more positively. Or at the very least, perhaps relief in the spiritual area might mitigate some of the physical symptoms they are facing.
As a hospital chaplain, this seems quite reasonable to me. There are many patients whose very presence in the hospital (for any reason) leads them to experience spiritual pain. “Why am I here?” they ask. Or, “I thought God was on my side—how could this happen?” The sense of pain, although not measurable with medical devices, is absolutely real. It is something akin to what the prophet Jeremiah cried out to God in the Hebrew Bible: “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails” (Jer. 15:18).
In light of recent events—earthquakes, hurricanes, and horrific shootings—we must not only tend to the obvious physical needs of the hurting, but also to the spiritual pain they are facing. Last week I spent a day in Marathon in the Florida Keys talking to several people who had lost everything they owned in Hurricane Irma. Obviously, their physical needs are many; however, they also have a need to speak of what they lost and whether they will have the spiritual strength to carry on. It was my honor to hear what they had to say.
Treating the “whole person” entails listening to their struggles and offering meaningful support. This is more necessary than ever before. Let’s make progress in easing spiritual pain.