By Sister Ann Letourneau
Faith. The belief there is a being greater than I can imagine. The conviction that if I lead a good life on earth, I will go to a place of unconditional love and peace when I die. Most days I take this gift for granted. Lately, however, I find myself filled with gratitude for the gift that faith is to me. In the last year and a half my family has suffered from three untimely deaths. One of my brothers died at the age of 60 after living with a rare form of dementia for seven years. One grand-nephew and one grand-niece died within months of their birth. I just can’t imagine the grief without leaning into my God and holding onto the belief that these precious little ones and my brother are enjoying full knowledge of God with my parents, and one day we will all be reunited.
Don’t get me wrong. This grace of faith does not take away the sting of death and the indescribable heaviness of my heart. “Life is not supposed to be this way!” I find myself yelling at God. “You could have done something about this!” God holds all my anger and pain. God listens and offers me comfort even when I am not open yet to receiving it. God lets me be human at the same time I am a person of faith. Losing those we love is like having one’s heart ripped out. I think God gets that. God made us for relationship, how could we not feel as though a part of us has died when our loved ones die?
The image that keeps returning to me in my prayer is of holding my faith in one hand and the gravity of my human emotions in the other. They are both important. Denying one for the sake of the other is harmful. If I denied my belief system and allowed the complex emotions of grief to take over, I would be overwhelmed and might be perpetually angry with this Being that is so much bigger than me. I would play the “blame game,” accusing God of causing, or at least not stepping in to save, my family from this pain. In my best self, I don’t think God works this way. God does not cause awful events. In the course of nature, painful things happen, but that is not on God. God can bring good out of the pain if I choose to pay attention.
Denying my raw emotions is just as damaging. Stuffing emotions and thinking my faith takes them away is called spiritual bypass. We bypass the human need to feel the loss of those we love. I contend that when we deny such emotions they come out in ways that are not helpful to ourselves or our relationships. We may find ourselves reacting to other minor events with strong emotion or being more irritable than usual. Or, the built up emotion may cause us to be physically sick.
In one hand I hold the grief that I have never before experienced. In the other, I hold the greatest gift I have been given, faith. I need both. I need to express the depth of my anguish and lean into my God for comfort. This is the only way I can navigate this human journey called life.
About the Author
Sister Ann Letourneau, PsyD has been a Sister of St. Joseph for 29 years. She is a staff psychologist at Central Dupage Pastoral Counseling Center in Carol Stream, IL where she sees individual clients and offers educational presentations on various psychological and spiritual topics. Sister Ann is fascinated by nighttime dreams and runs a monthly dream group at The Well Spirituality Center, a sponsored ministry of the Congregation of St. Joseph in La Grange, IL.