Conversations in Grief Blog: The Purpose of Feelings
There is a reason that I give the bereaved permission to feel whatever they are feeling.
I say it more than I say anything else. You get to feel sad. You get to feel jealous. You get to feel frustrated. You get to feel guilty. You get to feel angry. A daughter expressed anger after her mother died in a facility that was locked down due to COVID-19. Then she checked her anger and began defending the facility saying they were doing the best they could. I told her, “You get to be angry.”
We judge our feelings, saying “I shouldn’t feel that way,” and then attempt to dismiss the feeling that may be distressing. But when we do this, we are missing the point.
The purpose of our feelings is to teach us.
The feeling isn’t an end in itself. It alerts us that something is going on that we probably need to address. Let me share an example from my recent past. When I began my work at Rainbow Hospice, I was fulfilling a dream that was 20 years in the making: serving a hospice as a bereavement coordinator. My husband and I moved from Illinois where we had lived for almost 30 years, leaving behind work, friends, church, and the home where we had raised our children. I wasn’t in my new role long, a role that I had dreamed and hoped for, when I found myself out of sorts. I felt sad. I wasn’t enjoying my work. I even began to wonder if taking the job had been a mistake.
Here’s what I did. I accepted that I was sad. I decided to learn from my sadness. I talked to other people about my sadness. I thought about my sadness. I wrote about my sadness. Why was I sad? What made me sad? I learned two things. First, I was grieving. I had left behind deep relationships, a job where I was trusted and respected, our family home, a loving church. I needed to take time to grieve what I had lost, to name all the people and experiences and the community that I still loved but had left. Second, I was lonely. I was on the outside looking in on people who had developed relationships with each other. I longed for that camaraderie even as I understood that developing new relationships would take time.
What relief I felt to understand what was going on. Nothing changed. I was still sad. I was still lonely. But now I knew why. It made sense that I needed to grieve all that I had left behind. It made sense that I was lonely as I adjusted to my new role in new employment in a new state. I knew that I was going to be okay. Following my feelings led me to new insight.
In regards to the daughter who expressed anger, her anger was appropriate. She understood that she had lost control, not only of her mother’s care, but was also unable to be present with her mother. She found herself powerless and helpless. All of the ways she would have loved and honored her mother were robbed from her.
This work that I did and that I’m inviting you to do is encapsulated in the following Native American proverb, “If you can give something a name and a shape, you have power over it. But if you can’t give it a name and a shape, then it has power over you.”
Yes, you get to feel however you are feeling. But don’t stop there. Let your feelings teach you, too.