Discovering the meaning behind one’s suffering does not take away the weight of sacrifice, but it triumphs over anxiety. This is a witness of Father Vincent Nalge, hospital Chaplain at the Maddalena Grassi Foundation in Milan.

For the past few years I am the chaplain at the Maddalena Grassi Foundation based in Milan. People suffering that I meet there often tell me, “I am not afraid of death, but of suffering, yes.” Even though I understand what they mean, I answer back saying that in many cases the experience of suffering is precisely the experience of slow decaying of the person – body and the whole earthly life – and this is why people have a very hard time bearing the whole weight: because they are afraid of death, because of the anxiety that is bound to the thought of death. Death and suffering are tightly linked to one another, and the fear of suffering stems from the fear of death. What makes them such an arduous obstacle is not primarily pain – which is surely an important element – but it is rather the anxiety that is generated by suffering and death, the presentiment of the end of existence as we know of it, that is, without a clear view of a promising destiny. This is intolerable. And this is the origin of our terror in front of suffering.
On the other side, it doesn’t always happen that pain generates anxiety. Athletes frequently suffers from enormous and during pain, but it is considered a foreshadowing of success that they are pursuing, dedicating their whole life with great effort. I recall my ex-fiancé, who was a professional ballerina. After long rehearsal, she would sit down and take off her point-shoes – those shoes that allow ballerinas to stand on their toes – stained with blood. It didn’t disturb her at all (but it surely did disturb me!), because it was seen as a part of growth in her life which she loved. Suffering itself is not an obstacle, but the anxiety that is generated by it.
When I accompany people who are sick, my hope is that they may walk the path of liberation, not so much from their suffering, but from their anxiety. My hope is that they may begin to see that it is reasonable to invest – freely and humanly – in their lives, in the specific “call” that everyone received.
I continuously discover that in accompanying them on this path, liberates me first of all, from the anxiety that I have in me. Every single one of us, in fact, are anxious about our inevitable extinction from this earth, whether we know it or not. Thus, accompanying those who are suffering does not only translate into helping others, but it becomes an act of asking the liberation from anxiety. I always try to observe them, listen to them carefully in order to recognize the signs of grace, presence, meaning, purpose, horizon and hope that could transform the path of suffering seen as an unjust sentence, into a path of love, freely followed.
About four years ago, I was called to go to the house of a lady who was diagnosed with ALS, a terrible disease which slowly deprives the faculty to use voluntary muscles, including lungs, leaving the person perfectly conscious but at the same time immobile without any possibility to communicate.
When I first met her, she could still move a little, breathe with a mask and talk. She told me right away that she wanted to die, that she desired to be brought to Switzerland to be euthanized. I asked her the reason behind such a drastic decision. She told me that in the early stage of her illness, one of her sisters – Caterina – used to stay at her side, but she was diagnosed with cancer and soon died. Hearing that her sister was Caterina, I revealed to her my devotion to Saint Catherine of Siena. She was thrilled about this saint, and as we began to read about the life of Saint Catherine, she began to feel closer to her deceased sister.
Afterwards, I understood another and deeper motive behind her desire to die: the thought that she would become a burden to her children. In fact, the responsibility of caring for their mother was not a small task. I assisted at a few moments of great frustration by the mother as well as by her children. They were having a hard time getting used to the increasing amount of care that was needed for their mother.
One day, I was talking to the mother about love, and how love is the only thing that counts: only the memory, the presence, and the promise of love allows us to stay alive in this world with an open and grateful heart. Then I went on to tell her that her suffering could be for her children a “school”, a path that could orient them toward their vocation to love. Did she really want to deprive her children of the possibility to learn the necessity of sacrifice by those who love?
Little by little, in the name of Jesus and of Saint Catherine, she embraced this calling. I saw her for the last time before her death last September. She was blissful, grateful and truly free. She did not consider herself a victim. She was not anxious, rather, she had invested her life with the magnificent calling with promises eternity: the offering of love.

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