Friday, January 19, 2007

Close to the Bone

I have been home sick for most of the week. Now that I finally get my appetite and most of my strength back, I have to write/prepare for a funeral service tomorrow. It is my first Funeral service in Vancouver. I have done numerous memorial services as part of my work, but this is the first one where I am the sole officiant. I did a "joint" service at a local nursing home for one of my renal patients which received good comments from attendees. Some of my staff came as well.
It is harder to do a service for someone that you did not know very well.

Since I have been home, I have begun rereading some of my books that I normally don't have time for .. or the brain for. You have to be in a certain mood for some books. Especially when you do the type of work that I do. It's not that I deal with death and dying all the time, but the issue of illness and suffering does comprise a lot of my work. After a while, you want to read ANY thing BUT.. something related to your field of work. Yet it is ironic that when I look at my library, there is a spiritual and psychological component to even my novels.

Close to the Bone is one of the books that I picked up a few years ago. Probably because it was cheap and likely related to my work. It is talking about the way that suffering affects us, our response to suffering.. either our own, or someone else's. The author relates a Babylonian myth as part of the beginning pages in describing the experience that most patients experience as part of their hospital experience.

Inanna is a queen who descends the depths of the underworld, to see her sister who is suffering.

The descent of the soul into the underworld which illness can precipitate, does not always have the impact of a shocking, sudden and unexpected abduction or the immediate devastation of being at the center of a major earthquake. Persephone's myth applies when this is so, but there is a second myt that parallells the experience of people whole illness and decent occurs in stages through an incremental loss of footing in the ordinary world of good health: either they have an illness with a gradually worsening pattern, or they maintain the illusion of being in control and minimize the emotional impact of having a serious medical problem. The myth that resembles the journey they take goes back at least five thousand years to the Sumerian goddess of Inanna.
Inanna was the Queen of Heaven and Earth. Heeding the news that her sister goddess Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, was suffering and in pain, she decided to pay her a visit. Inanna mistakenly assumed that she could descend with ease. She would find however, that the power and authority she had int he upperworld had no bearing on how she would be treated in the underworld.
Inanna knocked imperiously on the gate to the underworlds demanding that the doors be opened. The gatekeeper asked who she was, and then told her that in order to pass through, there was a price. She would find that there was not just one gate, but seven. At each one, the gatekeeper told her that she must take off something she was wearing to pass through. Each time, Inanna responded indignantly, shocked that this should be so, with the words: "What IS this?" Each time, she was told: "Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned."
Her magnificent headdress, the crown that designated her authority, was removed at the first gate. The lapis necklace ... double strand of rich beads.. breastplate .. gold bracelets .. royal robe. Naked and bowed low, She entered the underworld. Over and over, at each gate, symbols of power and prestige, wealth, and office were taken from her. ... Over and over, she would say "what is this?" and be told, "Quiet Inanna. the rules of the underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned."
Whenever a person becomes a patient and enters a hospital, the experience is not unlike Inanna's. Metaphorically, there are a series of gates to go through, and at each one, something is taken away. At the door of the hospital, s/he unwittingly crosses the first gate. In increments, thereafter, a patient is stripped of dignity, choice and authority. However important the patient is in the world, however significant s/he is to someone else does not matter here.
The second gate is the admissions desk... the third gate is usually the hospital room. Here each patient takes off street clothes which are reflections of individuality and status and puts on standard hospital gown that often is ill-fitting, too short and opens up the back. ...
Metaphorically and actually, illness and hospitalizations strip us of what covered and protected us in many ways. Indignities happen, and a "what is this?" protest may be met by words and attitudes from hospital staff that resemble those that Inanna heard: "Quiet, Patient. The orders of the doctor are perfect. They may not be questioned." Even when our physician are healers whom we trust, and they as well as the others communicate what an why whatever is being done is required, and even if we are fully involved in the decision-making, the journey is still similar to Inanna's. There are still gates we go through, which strip up of persona and defense: we become exposed and bare-souled.

The writer goes on to say that when we have been stripped so much, we reach our bare core and find things that were buried, or that we were not aware of. We are faced with the raw product of Self. Suffering brings us in contact with things we would otherwise prefer to forget, according to Henri Nouwen, a theologian. It is what we do with this time of suffering or death that defines our character, and provides a model for others. Some aspects of suffering give us NO CHOICE, but we do have a choice as the author of this book continues in the chapter. We can face it with dignity, or we give up.

This experience of being stripped to the bareness of it all... this is what I see everyday. My staff see it sometimes more intensely than I do. When one sees and experiences suffering on a daily basis, there is something inside that cries out for someone to do something. The mind rationalizes that even though I cannot change the situation, I can often comfort in the care given. That or the brain reacts with one of many defense mechanisms so that the intensity and raw pain are not felt so deep by the caregiver, so that the vicariousness of it all isn't touching too deep. There is a necessity of balance. The caregiver needs to separate themselves from the suffering and pain they witness, but there needs to be some acknowledgement that this cannot go on.
Hard lessons in life.

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