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"Listening to Those Who Suffer"

It's hard to believe that already two years have passed. There are days when it feels like it was yesterday, while other days it almost feels like a cloudy memory. I've heard others share that same experience. It just indicates how such a loss affects one's emotional clarity.

As I've taken the time to review the past four years, I was quickly reminded that our family has lost four significant individuals within that time frame. First it was my father's father (2001), then it was my dad (2003), my uncle (2004), and now my grandmother (2005). These weren't friends or acquaintances, nor were they distant relatives. These were close loved ones. And, if that isn't enough, I know of one relative - someone quite dear to my heart - who is now facing a terminal illness. As perplexing as this is, I sometimes wonder if this is just a season or if this will be a pattern. As Rich Mullins once said, "we're all terminal." If there is one sure guarantee in life, it is that we will die. We can't deny that. However, it's how we view death that will make the difference in how we live our lives now.

Over the course of these four years, I've spent much time in reflection, pondering the events that have taken place, the emotional impact it has had on my family, and the changes we've had to make. Much has been written on the topics of suffering, grief and bereavement, losing a loved one, and terminal illnesses. And many great insights have come from such writings. As a former graduate student studying clinical disorders, I learned and debated the various ethical and moral issues which arose with each case. I even had clients who had to work through very painful life changes. It was never easy for me to observe, but my suffering was minimal as compared to theirs.

Now, my learning has come full circle. It's experiential in nature. No longer do I sit in the sterile classroom, writing on cold, inanimate desks. I now sit in front of a new teacher, perhaps my greatest one so far - suffering. You've read that correct. This teacher is merciless. I can't ask for an extension or fill out a drop/add slip with hopes of absconding from the class itself. As much as I want to rebel and flee, my only response is to yield to such a process with hopes of being shaped into someone more prepared for future challenges. I've not yielded to passivity, if that's of concern. If anything, I'm more active and engaged in this process. From my perspective, although suffering is my teacher, it's a means by which God is using to shape me, hopefully, into a more complete and healthy person.

I've read about Dr. Paul Bland, a recognized scholar on the subject of leprosy. From his perspective, pain is a good thing. If we didn't have pain, we wouldn't know how to "listen" to our bodies. At the sight or sensation of any pain, many Americans fall prey to denial that something is ever wrong. Some will actually run from their situation, failing to ever address the problem. When they finally seek help, the situation is often far worse than if they addressed the problem initially. To make his case, Dr. Brand shares that if his patients could feel pain, in most cases, they would never have lost their limbs or mangled their bodies. Contrary to what most people think, leprosy is still an issue today, even in America. The problem with his patients is a failed pain system. Because they cannot feel pain, they will often cut or burn themselves or do something without their awareness, and by the time they recognize their dilemma, the damage is beyond repair.

Pain is an invaluable instrument built into our bodies. It warns us that something is wrong and needs to addressed. Our bodies really are amazing. In fact they are so well connected that other parts will step-in and warn the individual that something is wrong, even when the area in question doesn't make the initial warning. This is called deferred pain. For example, heart attack patients often share that prior to the attack, they had a tingling sensation in their arms or had an numbing pain in their chest. Even though the heart is the real source of the problem, nearby pain receptors will step in and warn the person that something is wrong.

Two years have passed and the pain associated with my father's passing is still with us. It's certainly not the same as it was when he first passed away. I simply feel his loss in a new, more profound way than I have ever have before. I use the word profound because throughout this time, there has been so much to gain from this - even as tragic as it is. Just as pain is such a vital part of our bodies, the pain we feel when we lose our loved ones can cause us to become better or become bitter. You have the choice.

The pain I've experienced has made me more aware of the pains others feel. It has given me a new language to communicate with and a new understanding I didn't have as a psychotherapist. I see differently, feel much stronger, and am more aware of the needs of those who suffer. Of course I still wonder why God allowed my father to be taken so early. I wish I could say that after two years, I am completely at peace with this; I can't say that. But I can say that God is "speaking" to me through my pain, that even when I don't have a single clue as to what is going on, I trust I am growing even if I'm not aware any growth has taken place.

Just a few evenings ago, I attended an invitation only party for a well-known magazine. Many affluent Long Islanders/NY'ers were in attendance and I met some very unique people. I noticed a pattern with each conversation I had - everything revolved around their lives, their wealth, and their success. Not one person shared their heart to help other individuals. The conversations revolved around who they knew and what they owned.

When I contrast that group of individuals with those who have tasted pain and suffering firsthand, I see an entirely different type of person with an entirely different outlook on life. No longer do I see pride or arrogance or a hunger for power as a main focus. Egos are no longer competing for top spot. What I find are persons with very tender hearts. They've been broken, but their brokenness is viewed as a welcomed guest. They have been transformed into people who are sensitive and compassionate, desiring to step outside of themselves and give to those in great need. What a difference it is to be with such people.

I find myself far from where these individuals are at but their personalities have a magnetic effect. As I see their humility pour out of their lives, I find myself wanting to know them more and even become like them. I'm drawn to their realness. Why? I believe it's because when I see them, I see the real Jesus I find in scripture. Being with them reminds of my father and mother. My parents demonstrated a life of giving, first to their children and extended family, and then many others.

My pain has highlighted much of what I couldn't see when my father was alive. It has taught me not only about suffering and the reality of our lives on this earth, but the pain that others suffer also. I am grateful to have met several of you who have opened your hearts to me. You've shared your stories of loss. You've conveyed the heartache you shoulder each day. You've expressed your feelings of being alone, and in large gatherings, how your lonlinesess was only heightened. Now I can say - I understand. I wish I could physically embrace you, knowing that my words would do little to console you. Quite often, hugs communicate more than enough.

Two years from today, we said our earthly goodbyes to my father. Today, I stand hopefully more broken, much like the friends I've met along this new journey. Thank you to so many who have played a large part in my own personal growth.

Pressing forward,

- Justin Agoglia (eldest son of Joseph Agoglia)