Healing The Body-Mind-Spirit In The New Year

(Some Lessons from Others)

As a parish minister and chaplain, I have learned that many people make a big mistake when they define the concept of “healing.” They limit it. They think of it as a process which makes everything all right again; when physical, psychological, or spiritual pain is removed. But in fact, healing might not have anything to do with the status quo; it just might be a way by which we can create a whole new dimension of our existence.

Let me tell you what I mean by sharing some stories of my experience when I was a hospital chaplain at UCLA Medical Center.

Alison and Roy had been neighbors in the same apartment building. She was 43 years old, some 12 years older than he was. And they knew immediately they were destined to be together. But neither was willing to articulate it to the other. That is, until Alison discovered she had leukemia and began treatment at the UCLA Medical Center.

Her disease focused both of them. More accurately, it galvanized them into articulation of their love for one another. They decided to get married, no matter what. “I had to get sick to realize how lucky I am to have met Roy.”

Indeed, Roy shared in her illness. During those first few weeks of her treatment, he was with her constantly, sleeping in the room with her, awakening with her whenever she cried out in need or pain.

When Alison had finally gone into remission, she was allowed to leave the hospital for a couple of weeks before returning for further treatments. It was then that I performed their marriage ceremony with just family and close friends in attendance. Alison held up well during the ceremony and reception. But after the party, she virtually collapsed and was back in the hospital earlier than originally scheduled. A series of setbacks occurred.

During these times, she and Roy talked very openly with me about their feelings concerning issues of faith. Repeatedly, through their tears, they spoke of their profound gratitude for the beauty of the time they had had with each other. For them, time stood suspended. Neither the past nor present was important. Only the moment. And they wanted to make the most of each one.

Nevertheless, knowing that death was an ever-present reality for Alison, they learned the healing lesson pain had taught them: that life takes on new meaning when each moment is a whole lifetime.

Alison died on Easter morning, nearly a year after she began her medical treatment. Roy was by her side.

Paul endured severe pain for the entire year that it took him to die. This 43-year-old man could be totally angry, totally sad, and totally frustrated. Angry, sad and frustrated at the hospital staff, his friends, people from his past, his family (he was one of 18 children!), and God.

But every once in a while he laughed.

In truth, Paul was someone with whom I could share tears, in addition to laughter.

He shared his experience as a seminarian preparing for the priesthood. It was during this time, some 20 years previously, that he had come out as a gay man. This act caused the Catholic Church to reject his continuing to prepare for the priesthood.           

He spoke of friends he had, but never of lovers. “I never had romantic love,” he told me. “I always wanted to, but never did. Now it’s too late.”

Nor did he feel that he was close to his family. He blamed himself for the distance.

My heart broke for him. Here was a man in need of forgiveness, which is, after all, another name for compassion. I tried to make him understand that he could use the time he had to explore his spirituality. He liked that idea.

I visited him frequently, laughing with him, sitting quietly with him. In fact, I was so comfortable being around him that one day when he fell asleep, I drifted off as well. I read the Bible to him and meditated with him. His mother and oldest sister visited, as did two close gay friends. All of us told him how much we loved him.

I do feel that by the time he died, Paul experienced some degree of forgiveness and love. And in doing this he discovered, through his pain, a profound knowledge of what it meant to have lived in the first place.

Elaine was thirty-five years old. She was a wife and mother of three small children. And she was exuberant. “I have colon cancer, but I have faith,” was her message. “I have a disease, but I also have a life.”

She told me that she was positive because of her faith. But more than that, she said she was upbeat because she had to get on with her life. So, whenever she got depressed she said a prayer and then prepared dinner for her family. Then she cried for a while, then called up her beloved sister and asked how she was doing.

She told me about her brother-in-law, the doomsday prognosticator. “He had me dead the minute he heard I had cancer. He told everybody how people can’t recover from the kind of cancer I have. I told him to stop spreading the bad news.”

“And did he stop being negative?” I asked.

“He did after I told him I didn’t want to see him again if he kept upsetting me and others. One thing I’ve learned about being sick is to stay away from such negative people. Anyhow, the doctor told me I could go home real soon, even though my surgery was only a couple days ago.”

I left her room feeling that I had been taught a profound lesson.

And sure enough, Elaine checked out of the hospital in record time.

Timothy arrived via ambulance. I got a call to the emergency room and got there before he did. A nurse told me a car hit the victim’s motorcycle. One leg was completely severed. Amidst enormous activity, Timothy arrived. The medical team in the emergency room went to work on him. I timidly stood back and watched. They put him on the examining table. They uncovered the sheet hiding his body. I almost passed out. But didn’t.

A social worker wasn’t around. So I took on the extra tasks. I told the chart nurse who I was and asked if there was anything I could do. She told me to get his name. Without looking at what the doctors were doing, I went to him and began asking biographical information. I was surprised that he was not screaming in agony. He seemed calm. I wondered if he was in severe shock. But he answered my questions. He seemed glad to see me. He told me that his name was Timothy, and that he was 20 years old. He gave me his father’s phone number.

Over the next few weeks I discovered that Timothy was, in his own matter-of-fact way, deeply spiritual.

“They keep sending psychiatrists to see me to figure out why I’m not depressed,” he said. “I tell them to go see someone who needs them.”

I rejoiced with him on his twenty-first birthday, when he was fitted with a prosthesis. He began a new life and was grateful for the chance. I shall never forget the first steps he took.

Yes, the lessons of pain are many, if we will allow ourselves to be open to learning them, lessons about healing our body-mind-spirit in the coming year and for the rest of our lives.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Don Beaudreau
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