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When Feelings Undermines Faith
All the passages below are taken from William H. Griffith’s book, “More than a Parting Prayer---Lessons in Care-giving for the Dying.” It was published in 2004.
Tears are okay. They are not a sign of weakness. Death, disappointment, loss, and blocked possibilities cause us to feel anguish. These feelings of pain in our grief are signs of our love.... If we had no love, we would not grieve. And to deny our grief is to deny our love.
-James V. Mayfield
JUST AS I REACH OUT to ring the doorbell, the door opened and the husband of the patient I had come to visit welcomed me. I had spoken to him a few minutes earlier on the telephone. Richard's wife, Jane, was fifty-two years old and had been battling cancer for over two years. Over the past three weeks she had begun to decline physically and emotionally. Because of this change, it was recommended that she enter our hospice program. Richard had called our office requesting a pastoral counselor for his wife because she was anxious and depressed.
He thanked me for coming and led me into the small bedroom to meet his wife. When I entered, she apologized for not looking better. I tried to set her mind at case by saying that I wasn't expecting her to get all "dolled up" for me. She forced a smile. I extended my hand and told her my name. She slid herself toward the middle of the bed and patted the bed, inviting me to sit down. As I sat down, her husband excused himself, giving us permission to talk alone.
There was the usual introductory moment of silence between us, and then I said, "Talk to me. Tell me what you've been thinking."
She immediately responded, "I know I'll be all right when I get there, but getting there is so hard."
In order to be sure I understood her, I asked, "Are you speaking about the difference between death and the process of dying?"
"Yes." She paused for a moment, then continued, "I have believed in God and understand that when I get there I'll be OK, but I guess I'm beginning to wonder."
"About what?" I asked.
"Well, I just don't have the feeling of peace I used to have."
"When did you last have that feeling of peace?"
"During these past two years I've been fine with this, but now I'm not feeling fine. I don't feel that peace, and I don't know what that means. I don't really know if I'm going to get there."
With that confession, her eyes began to redden and small tears silently began to form. I reached out and held her hand and said, "Let me reassure you, Jane, that God's love for you doesn't depend upon your feelings."
She said, "Are you sure?"
And I answered, "Yes, I'm very sure. The Scriptures teach us this in many places, and one of those verses says, `While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us' (Rom. 5:8, KJV). That tells me that God's love was extended to us when we didn't feel very loving toward God, just as parents still love their children when the children misbehave."
She thought about that for a moment, attempted a smile, and said, "I want to believe that." Then she asked me where she would be after she died. She wanted to know if she would be in a state of sleep or if she would be alert.
I reminded her of the Scripture verse, "To be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (see 2 Cor. 5:8). I reminded her of the familiar closing verse of Psalm 23, "I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever" (23:6). I added to that Jesus' words about "going to prepare a place for us" (see John 14:2). I affirmed the truth of these verses: that God has a plan for us beyond this earthly existence, and although we can't describe it in detail, we accept it in faith. Then I asked, "Do you believe that?"
"Yes," she said. "I believe that, but my feelings..." She didn't finish, but I knew what she was saying. What she believed didn't filter down and take away her anxiousness. She then said, "I wish I could just go to sleep and not wake up. That would be peaceful."
We talked about any unfinished business she might have. It was difficult for her to talk about her two adult children and how she didn't want them to see her cry. We talked about the purpose of tears and how Jesus himself had cried when he grieved the death of his friend Lazarus, about how she needed to be honest with her family and not try to be strong for them, and about how tears were not so much a sign of weakness, but of love.
Before I left, I encouraged her to think about the years she had lived and the joys she had shared. She said, "My illness has made me realize how blessed I've been." I encouraged her to name those blessings and let her family know how blessed she felt. I prayed with her, and she thanked me for coming.
Before leaving the home, I sat in the living room and listened to Richard share with me his feelings of love and devotion for his wife. He was hopeful that our conversation would help her. I reminded him that we were available for both of them, that our team would be there for them as they continued their difficult grief work through the valley of the shadow.
Lessons for Caregivers
Disease that slowly destroys the cells of the body may also have a way of unraveling the fabric of faith. At such a time in one's spiritual journey, there is a struggle to believe that truth is not always defined by the gut. Jane was experiencing a new tension between what she knew intellectually to be true and the fact that she was unable to experientially validate those truths in her feelings. She, like so many who approach death, condensed her faith to the personal feeling of peace. She invested a great deal of her waking moments wondering if the lack of that feeling was an indication that she might not "make it."
And, although Jane had two adult children and a husband, I got the sense that she felt she had to be the "strong one" for the family. That is a tiring, lonely role that adds confusion to the feelings of the dying. Her husband's hope that my conversation with her would help raised a common concern. Often, a loving spouse feels inadequate in providing all that the patient needs. This helplessness, when expressed, becomes a shared hope that someone outside the family just might be able to offer the care that prepares the one who is dying for a peaceful death. Jane needed a caregiver who would give her reason to conclude that she was wrong about her feelings of doubt.
A caregiver who hears a patient speak about feeling sad, depressed, or uncertain about her faith needs to interpret such a conversation as a cry for help. Being able to listen and encourage the person to express those feelings and trace them back to where they began and when they changed will help the patient unload a part of the burden she carries. However, as helpful as that is, the caregiver must also be able to change the focus for the patient so that she can examine those feelings from a different perspective.
Also, it is important to reconnect the patient with her prior confidence in her faith values. The caregiver's knowledge of Scripture and the ability to use it as it relates to the patient's problem is a way to help the patient begin the journey back to where she once was. Familiar Scriptures became a convincing reminder to Jane that God's acceptance was not based on how we feel at any given moment any more than a parent's love for her child is based upon the feelings of the child when he is having a temper tantrum. God's love and promises remain solid, despite our feelings. [64-67]
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