“It’s just, just…” my patient stammered as tears welled up into her eyes.
“It’s just not fair.” I completed her sentence as I leaned in and gave her a consoling hug, which opened up a flood of tears from her eyes and trembling sobs.
“It’s not fair that I have to go through this, that my children have to go through this. They are so young,” she continued.
“I know. I know,” I said. “It’s not.” That’s all I could say as I offered her a listening ear and compassionate understanding.
This woman was young, in her early 40s, and she had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma at the outpatient clinic where I worked. For months, she had put up a brave face, coming in every four weeks for long treatments that totally wiped out her body in the hope that it would wipe out the cancer as well. She had five young children at home and a loving husband. She had been fighting so bravely, trying to be optimistic, but the physical and emotional burden of her cancer and its treatment was taking a toll on her. What she really needed right now was not an upbeat “everything will be okay,” but a safe place to express her deepest and darkest sorrows, frustrations, and fears.
In my own life, I have experienced difficulty accepting feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, and fear. As a Catholic, I thought I needed to be always joyful and optimistic about life. I thought I needed to be like the great saints who, even in the midst of terrible suffering and struggles, had such peace and joy, and spread it to others.
This is how I thought, yet, by denying my feelings, I denied my ability to be able to get to a place where I would have that peace and joy. I didn’t realize that even the saints had these “negative” feelings and had to grapple with them and bring them to God in prayer, just like everyone else, in order to truly experience that strong faith, hope, love, joy and peace. It was, in fact, the grace of God that was given to them through their openness to him – not a suppression of their true feelings.
I know I am not alone in thinking like this. There are certain feelings that, as a society, we tend to view as bad and to be avoided at all costs – anger, sadness, fear to name a few. As Christians, we may feel especially shameful if we are experiencing feelings of anger against God. Yet, this is not actually how our faith is. Our faith is not a denial of our human feelings. Our faith is not a Pollyanna-type optimism. Our faith is hope and trust in the midst of our strong feelings.
Just open your Bible and read the Book of Psalms. It is full of hymns containing very intense feelings, sometimes even anger and questioning of God.
Even though the psalmist feels free to fully express himself and his full array of emotions, he also always comes back to hope and trust. He always remembers how God has taken care of him in the past and makes an act of the will to trust in God for his present and future needs.
I can learn a lot from the psalmist. When I’m struggling with strong feelings such as sadness, anger, fear, or grief, I too can give myself permission to feel. Permission to speak to God and others honestly and openly. I too can also rise out of it by making a choice to trust that God is with me through my struggles and suffering.
Once my patient felt free to open up and accept her feelings of sadness, anger, and discouragement, she was able to move forward and receive the graces of courage, peace, fortitude, and hope in her struggle. Today, she is happily in remission.
In my own life, I have found healing in accepting my feelings and expressing them through prayerful journaling, opening up to those closest to me, and seeking a professional therapist to talk through my feelings. It is not always easy for me to let myself feel, or to bare my soul to another person. Yet, I have found that it is only when I have given myself permission to feel and express my feelings in a healthy way, that I can move forward and find healing, faith, hope, joy, and peace.