THE BLOG

The Hierarchy Of Suffering

22/03/2017 16:22 GMT | Updated 22/03/2017 16:22 GMT
Brian Lawrence via Getty Images

My friend recently fell on the stairs at work and broke her shoulder. That break came hard on the heels of her breaking her back - a fracture sustained in a fall on a train that had gone unnoticed in the x-rays.

So it's fair to say my friend is in pain and is suffering.

She did not call me to have a good moan. She sent a text - but only to cancel a social engagement. She apologised because she felt she really shouldn't be moaning to me of all people.

And that's because I am living with incurable cancer.

This is what I call the hierarchy of suffering and I want to challenge it. It's a way of thinking that says because I have this cancer, my suffering trumps yours. My friend did not call to tell me about her accident because, in her mind, her suffering is lower down in this pyramid. She is not worthy of my sympathy.

But right now, I am pain free. Yes, I am slightly fatigued from the treatment, but basically I am doing OK. So who is in more pain?

I get it a lot. My sister, who has tested positive for the same gene defect that caused my cancer, has recently undergone preventive surgery. Yet she doesn't want to bother me with her own worries or how she's feeling because my suffering is so much greater. Is it though?

I was at the hospice recently with a mixed group of carers and patients. One of the carers started to talk honestly about the pain he is living through - but stopped himself to say: "But of course that's nothing to what you guys (ie the people with life limiting conditions) are going through."

Again, I ask, is it? In some ways, I think I have the easy part. I'm the one who's leaving, I told him. You are the one who has to watch your loved one suffer and then cope with the loss. I'll be gone.

It's a problem, this hierarchy. For one, it's nonsense. My pain and grief are mine and do not exist in relation to yours or anyone else's. It also puts me in a very lonely place on top of this pyramid. There's not so many people to talk to up here.

If I've learned anything from this cancer, it is this: compassion. We are all in pain to one degree or another as it is an unavoidable part of life. It's compassion for others that helps me see myself in perspective. It enables me to see that I am not alone. By helping others - usually just by listening - I help myself.

I do not want to walk this path to my death by myself. But while you keep treating me as if I am too high up the hierarchy of suffering even to be allowed to hear what is bothering you, then that's where you put me.

Let's walk together. I need you by my side - and I will be by yours.