Whose Pain Is It Anyway? – A Look at Pain Management

Whose Pain Is It Anyway? - A Look at Pain Management

Rev. Robert R. Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources


A while back I attended an ethics seminar in which the speaker said that 50% of pain medication requests come from family members, not the patient. In another survey, nurses estimate that 80% of pain medication that they administer is at the request of the family. Hearing these statistics and recalling my own experiences with families in the hospital setting, I am compelled to ask, “Whose pain is it, anyway?”

There is a humorous phenomena that takes place with some expectant couples in which the father feels what are called “sympathy pains” while his wife carries and delivers their child. He actually experiences a shortness of breath, abdomen pains, heartburn and other assorted pains associated with pregnancy and delivery.

I believe these are related. In both situations the one word that perhaps best describes the father and the family of a hospitalized loved one is “helpless.” As we observe our loved one experiencing the pains of childbirth or wrestle with some sickness or disease we are at a loss as to what to do.

Instinctively we become empathetic. Their plight becomes our plight. Their pain becomes our pain.

Empathy is generally a good thing. It is encouraged in Scripture. We read, “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3). God wants us to identify with the crises of those who suffer. He wants us to feel their pain and to take action to deliver them from their pain.

Empathy, however, is not always a good thing. It is not good when we allow empathy to move us to do things that are contrary to the will of God. I encounter this many times in counseling families who care for someone whose quality of life has greatly diminished.

Time and time again we hear people say things like, “I would never want to be like that” or “I don’t think I could handle that.” This may be true, but this way of thinking has us nearly overstepping God’s will. At times like this when a crisis strikes a loved one, our judgment is clouded by emotion.

There is an emotional bond between family members that inhibits objectivity. I am reminded of the doctor who told me he could operate on the most important person in the world but could not operate on his own son. The kinship creates a level of anxiety and clouds the judgment on how best to proceed.

When observing a loved one undergoing some pain, procedure or fighting some disease we cannot simply step back and objectively make decisions. Our thoughts are clouded by memories of good and bad times.

We cry for the suffering of our loved ones, and often unrealistically cling to any expectation there might be for full recovery.

Most often these patients are heavily sedated or comatose but we aren’t. They are often unaware of their surroundings, but we are keenly aware of the surroundings. We set out to end their pain but, in fact, we are out to end our own pain. We don’t like seeing them like this. We don’t like thinking of what was and what is now gone.

All the pain medication in the world for the patient will not remove the deep seated hurt we feel as we wrestle in our cognitive states the changes this has all brought upon us. Can we adjust to the changes that have taken place? How will he feel about these changes?

In the end, the pain we want to end is often our own. We decide that our uncle with advanced-staged Alzheimer’s should no longer be fed. He is feeling no pain or suffering. He is most likely unaware of his surroundings. Yet, we will justify not feeding him by saying we are alleviating his pain and suffering. In fact, we are relieving our pain and our suffering. We want to ease our painful thoughts that sadly cherish a past of better times and except a future full of painful challenges without any realistic expectation of full recovery.

There is no way to turn off the empathy switch in all of us. And, perhaps we shouldn’t. As I stated earlier, empathy can be a very good thing. Yet, we must safeguard our loved ones from our sinfully-tainted empathy that is clouded by inconsistent or maybe even selfish emotions. To do this I suggest the following:

  1. Involve your pastor in the process of making decisions for your loved one. Remember that your ultimate goal is to glorify God in all that you do. What better person to involve at this point than the expert in God’s Word?
  2. Think about these things in advance. Crisis management is rarely good management. It is important for families to discuss first what God’s Word has to say and then make a group decision to conform our wills to the will of God.
  3. Spiritualize the discussion and decision process. While some will just want to consider the medical facts, and others may look at economics, you must raise the discussion to a spiritual level. Approach the Lord’s throne in prayer. Seek out His guidance in His Word. Watch your words and actions carefully that others may know that, when dealing with you on these important decisions, they are dealing with a child of God.

Feel, with empathy, the plight of those who suffer. To quote a now over-used line, “Feel their pain.” But beware of your emotions and how quickly our decisions misrepresent our allegiance to God. Seek out His will, decide to His glory, and be ready to continue the task of showing sacrificial love as He has shown to you in Christ.


Beginnings, Sept/Oct 1998, Vol. 18, No. 5

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