On Suffering & Compassion

by Gwyneth Koh

I vaguely remembered attending a retreat during my university life that changed my outlook on the word ‘compassion’. The speaker mentioned that compassion was compounded from the Latin word ‘com-pati’ which means ‘to suffer with’. Over the last three months, I was posted to an oncology (cancer) ward to transition into a state registered nurse. It was there where I witnessed the suffering of my patients and their families and where I learnt what it was truly like to ‘suffer with’.

When nursing school came into the picture, I entered wide-eyed and ready to conquer. However, by this year, attachments had gotten more difficult as we had patients assigned directly to us.

Jesus Is Hope
One day, amidst the hustle and bustle of serving medications on time and arranging scans for patients, a man, donned in a clergyman’s attire, stepped into my cubicle, with holy water in one hand. He was there to administer the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick for my patient who was about to start chemotherapy that day. I paused in my work and offered up a short prayer for her silently in my heart and gave her space to cry and talk before we started her chemo regime. I shared with her how I was also a Catholic, spoke to her briefly about our parishes and gave her the reassurance that she was in my prayers and that Jesus will be her strength. Through the Sacrament and perhaps through our short conversation, she had a smile on her face that stood out amidst her tears. It was not one of resignation but one of strength and bravery.

To this day, I vividly remember the courage she had within her when she said, “It’s okay. Jesus is with me”.

It was that day I realised – in a place where tumours kept growing, where pain scores kept increasing and where hair kept falling out, there was still hope. I saw her hope in Jesus – her hope that Jesus with her. As mentioned in CCC #1503, “His preferential love for the sick has not ceased through the centuries to draw the very special attention of Christians toward all those who suffer in body and soul. It is the source of tireless efforts to comfort them.”

Jesus is the physician the sick has need of. He carries the cross for them when it is too onerous to bear. When our own optimism leaves us without light, Jesus is hope and light himself. He is the optimism in the face of adversity. When I saw my patient’s steady hope in the Lord, it, too, rekindled a new understanding that in suffering, all is not lost. In suffering, He leaves us with hope to keep moving forward, to remain at peace and perhaps even joyful.  From that day on, I would recite the St Francis de Sales prayer before the start of the shift for me and my patients:

“Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life.

rather, look to them with full hope that as they arise,

God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things; and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in His arms.

 He will either shield you from suffering or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.”

Room For One More
(Until this day,) I realised that the priest did not enter the ward just for my patient, but also for me. I had been so fixated on clearing tasks and making sure I scored well for my clinical posting that I had compartmentalised my disposition of caring from my nursing parctice. While growing up, I realised I had a deep desire to care for others. It could manifest in the form of sitting beside my friend in primary school until her tummy ache felt better or visiting my relatives who were sick.

However, nursing in an oncology ward had taken a considerable toll on me – both physically and emotionally. I was going through shifts in a constant state of exhaustion and fatigue to the point where I almost lost sight of why I started nursing in the first place. It took encouragement from friends, that experience of the Sacrament in my workplace, and many silent prayers laced with tears to remember that nursing is my vocation, my ministry, and my cross to carry.

Through this vocation and journeying with the sick, Jesus has revealed to me the virtue of compassion and it is a virtue I hold very close to my heart. To suffer with. In carrying my own cross and allowing Christ in, I have received new knowledge on the weight of the cross and how to bear it. I learnt that compassion meant ‘making space for one more’ – to make room to care and carry their cross with them as they walk this difficult road. Compassion may look different on different days. It could look like holding space for a friend when they share their worries, or caring for a sick family member, or even helping a colleague who is struggling with work. It is making space in our vessels to hold one more of His own.

I pray that in the sufferings you may experience in this lifetime, you will take courage in knowing that you are not alone in them. Jesus is faithful and He will carry you when you cannot carry yourself. I pray that you, too, will be a beacon of light to others in their suffering and to allow yourself to be His vessel.


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