Columns for The Lufkin News

Being There for Those Who Suffer

Posted Sep 02, 2014 by Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Two articles appeared recently in major newspapers discussing how we can be more helpful to those who are suffering. The New York Times article by David Brooks (The Art of Presence) looks at helping those who are experiencing tragedy, while The Wall Street Journal column by Elizabeth Bernstein (To Be a Friend In a Time of Need, Talk Less, Listen More) specifically addresses helping those with depression. The lessons of each apply equally well to anyone who is grieving or suffering. To me, Brooks sums up our mission with one word: presence.

What does presence look like? Better yet, what does presence sound like?

First and foremost, silence. That means shut up. When I am sick or grieving, I don't want or need your advice unless I ask for it. Don't tell me I should go see XYZ doctor just because you or your Aunt Melba did. I can make my own decisions, thank you very much. But do let me vent sometimes, without thinking you have to fix it for me. Just be there for me; that is comfort. The Latin root of comfort means to come along side with strength. The Holy Spirit is also called the Comforter. Isn't that a beautiful image?

As friends, we don't feel very strong, though, so we try to overcompensate. Why do we always feel we have to solve someone's problems, rather than quietly comforting? Bernstein notes how we can comfort others with our notes and cards. Brooks agrees it is often simple non-verbal expressions like bringing soup that mean so much. Both emphasize: listen.

When I was in college, one of my best friends was very ill in the hospital from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She nearly died. She was a baby Christian, and I tried to "be there" for her. Unfortunately, there were others who told her that her faith was not strong enough or she wouldn't be sick. Not only is that terrible theology - Job, anyone? - it is devastating psychology.

Often, what presence boils down to is time. I remember conversation I had recently where I delivered some devastating news to a patient and her caregiver. It was near the end of a long day, and it would have been so easy to say some platitudes and "give hope" when what was really needed was simple truth delivered with compassion and grace. When the visit was over, the caregiver followed me out into the hall and said, "I know you are busy..." That's when I stopped in my tracks, paused, and replied, "You are the most important thing right now."

She asked some particular questions that made me realize we needed to have a much deeper conversation, and that the "truth" I delivered needed a little more "presence". So, we went back into the room and had the unrushed conversation we should have had all along. We talked much more about prognosis, treatment options, and whether or not to continue with plans to see another specialist and get more tests done.

Ultimately, I recommended hospice care - end of life care focused on comfort rather than prolongation of life. I wasn't sure if the patient would agree. But this lovely woman – who couldn't speak from a prior stroke, but who could understand fully the intricacies of the conversation – looked at me and gave me the most peaceful smile I have ever seen, along with her faltering, "Yes."

At the end of a busy day, that smile meant the world to me. The gift of presence, returned with a smile.

Your First Visit

What to expect on your first consultation

Get Started >

Centers

Learn about the Temple Cancer Center at CHI St. Luke’s Health Memorial

See Our Center >

Radiation Therapy

Find answers to common questions about radiation therapy

View the FAQ >

Meet Our Team

Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Radiation Oncologist

Madelene Collier, RN, OCN

Madelene Collier, RN, OCN

Radiation Oncology Nurse

Jewel Randle, RT (R)(T)

Jewel Randle, RT (R)(T)

Lead Radiation Therapist

Aimee Salas, RT (T)

Aimee Salas, RT (T)

Radiation Therapist

Josh Yarbrough, RT (R)(CT)(T)

Josh Yarbrough, RT (R)(CT)(T)

Radiation Therapist

Julie McClain, RT (R)(T)

Julie McClain, RT (R)(T)

Dosimetrist

Linda Miller, MS

Linda Miller, MS

Medical Radiation Physicist

Evelyn Leach

Evelyn Leach

Receptionist