Family of Pain

Family of Pain by Lynn R. Webster @LynnRWebsterMD

Failing to Understand the Experience of Pain

Most people in pain do not like talking about their pain problem with others. When they do mention it to friends and family, they generally are disappointed at the responses. People are well intended, at least initially, but they can be insensitive. Fundamentally, they fail to understand what someone in pain is experiencing, so they can only provide a limited amount of support.

Kate Bowler, who is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, writes about the range of responses people have had to her stage IV cancer diagnosis in a New York Times op-ed. The reactions of family and friends often fall far short of what she needs. However, she doesn’t blame them. Rather, she understands all that they do not know. You might well gain insights of how you can better respond to people in pain by reading about her experiences.

Severe Pain Creates a Virtual Family

People in pain don’t just know about suffering; they intimately understand it. Only others with pain can truly empathize. People in pain learn what it is like to need help. They grow and mature as they learn about the gift of compassionate giving and unconditional caring.

Severe pain allows a person to be tuned into other people with severe pain — not just physical pain, but also mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering. People in pain belong to a virtual family or club.

Fluency in the Dialect of Pain

It is a club that nobody wants to join. But, when the alternative is to feel isolated, it can be helpful to know that you are part of an extended family of people in pain.

When members of that extended family of people in pain encounter someone who is deeply hurting, they will notice the signs of pain in that person’s words and tones, gestures, and body language. These are the subtle giveaways that others who are made myopic because of their own good health might overlook. People in pain have the capacity for empathy for others. They have undergone the rites of membership in the fraternity of suffering. It can be a bond amongst an isolated tribe.

One of my patients who was improving after a decade of pain said, “Now that I’m getting better and I’m caught up in other things, I’m worried about losing my fluency in that dialect.”

One can only respect a desire not to lose one’s fraternity with humanity’s most hurting people.  It’s a shame that we have to be in pain ourselves to truly understand what a blessing it is to have those understanding virtual family members in your time of greatest need.


Photo by Kevin Delvecchio on Unsplash


  1. David W Cole on April 2, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    I know before I became a pain patient, I paid no attention to people. Now I can spot a pain patient a mile away. What a great article. thank you

    • Dawn on May 1, 2018 at 12:31 pm

      Same here David. We are a special and all too terrible group

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