Struggling With Medical Trauma? Love is the Answer
It’s stunning what the human body endures. Accidents, diseases, diagnoses, conditions — all these can lead to a surreal place we never thought we would have to go. How could we have known? Why did this happen to us? We each have our own story of what our body survived, with details that are vastly different, and harrowing. And yet somehow, we’ve survived.
I have had a long time to ponder, reflect, and grieve what happened to me. I don’t wish for the details of my own trauma to be the focus here, but I will offer this fact as a place to anchor the discussion. Several years ago, I had 17 holes in my body. In the space of 24 months, I had two cancer surgeries with various body parts removed, and a freak accident in my driveway where I permanently lost partial use of my left wrist, forever bent, scarred, and slightly deformed. It doesn’t matter how much time passes, I cannot undo these events. There’s no going back to “before.” There’s grief in this fact, and it is disorienting, learning to live in the everlasting “after” of medical trauma.
Our sufferings are unique
For me, acknowledging this grief has been the path to finding God’s grace — and healing. I embrace these words by the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, who spent years as a priest living at L’Arche, a community of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He writes, “Our sufferings and pains are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives; rather, they touch us in our uniqueness and our most intimate individuality. The way I am broken tells you something about me. The way you are broken tells me something about you…I am deeply convinced that each human suffers in a way no other human being suffers” (pg. 71, Life of the Beloved).
Honor your brokenness
Building on Nouwen’s words, I maintain that the first essential step in making peace with the trauma is to honor the full extent of our brokenness, and the breathtaking loneliness we find there. This is not about self-pity, complaining, or exploiting our situation. In fact, it takes courage to face it. By acknowledging the depth and scope of our unique trauma, something shifts inside. To be fully present to our own vulnerability and fragility is one of the most powerful gifts we can give ourselves; honoring the truth of it changes us spiritually. It’s an act of self-love amid loss, a potent form of love, deeply healing and transformative. I can say, without a doubt: it’s a fierce love that arises when you fight to heal, fight for your life.
Lean into love
I believe that God is love, and in passing through the moments, months, and years of physical trauma, God was there, and still is. This love is the thru-line, and I turn toward it, in the compassion I have for myself, and the tenderness I receive from others. Love was there at the start of a life-changing diagnosis, in the gentle hands of a nurse named Violet consoling me at three in the morning, sobbing after my first surgery. Love was there in the whorled red rosebuds of a bouquet from my son. Love is here now with the care of doctors, nurses, technicians, receptionists, who ensure I receive all the necessary surveillance to make sure I am still cancer-free.
I welcome how the truth of Henri Nouwen’s words, that we are each alone within our bodies, has led me to a place of knowing that love has been within me, and alongside me. I cannot undo the unwanted journey, but I can recognize the ways that love fills me and keeps me moving forward into the everlasting “after.”