by Collette Broady Grund
Over the last year, I have spent a lot of time with groups and individuals who are processing grief. It’s an unfolding vocation as I continue to process and integrate the sudden death of my husband in June 2019. Sharing what I have learned and opening space for others to do the same, I have been surprised by one thing over and over.
We don’t know how to feel our feelings.
Especially when they are big feelings, we get easily overwhelmed and would rather talk through what we feel than have the feelings. When I open space for people to bring up the deep and complex feelings grief brings, I often get questions like, “How do I keep this sadness from taking me over?” Or “I don’t think I can feel this much at once. What can I do to make this easier?” I hear the panic in these questions, and I understand it because there were times when I thought my body would give out due to my emotional distress.
I wasn’t taught how to identify and work with the bodily sensations our emotions create until I was in my 40s. When my therapist first asked me to identify where my sadness lived in my body, I was surprised to find I knew the answer. Once I found where it was, my therapist asked me what it wanted me to do. Again, I was shocked that my body knew exactly what it needed. When I listened to my body, my emotional distress came down to a manageable level. I had always thought that feeling my feelings just meant wallowing in them emotionally. No one told me (until that therapist) that the feelings I was supposed to be tending were actual physical sensations.
Once I started paying attention to those bodily sensations and the impulses they created within me, I realized how wise my body was. By design, our bodies are self-sustaining and self-caring ecosystems, giving our spirits ample information about what is safe, good, and right in the world around us. Our bodies are built to co-regulate with others in communities that breathe together, whose hearts beat fast around the same joys and injustices, physically and spiritually holding each other up when one is hurting.
I have come to believe that our emotions are one of the ways that God has fearfully and wonderfully made us. Therefore, learning how to feel what we feel is another access point to God’s wisdom that dwells within us. Most of my prayer these days is accompanied by physical activity because I find myself most in tune with God when I listen to my body and spirit together. From yoga to walking to good sleep habits, I am discovering that when my body is well, my spirit is too.
This, too, has come as a surprise to me. The faith I was raised in, while Christian, was very dualistic, pitting the flesh and the spirit against each other. I learned early and often that if my body was sending impulses I didn’t like or understand, they were meant to be overcome by the will of the spirit. I spent a lot of energy in my teens and well into adulthood living in suspicion of my body, trying to quell its sensations and desires, thinking that this would lead to purity of spirit that pleased God.
I now know that what my body feels is information our Creator intended to be useful for my flourishing. When I am sad, it signals that something important has been lost, that a hope I held dear or a love I cherished has ended. God grieves too. When I am angry, it signals that a boundary has been crossed and that I or other beloveds are not being treated the way they deserve. God gets angry too. Fear signals that I am not safe, emotionally and physically, and that I need support to move forward. God gets fearful, too, as Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane so vulnerably shows.
When we take the risk to lean into our emotions and tend to the physical sensations they create, we also lean into the goodness of how God made us. In our big and small feelings, we are reminded that God feels these things, too, because we are made in God’s image. May that reminder give you the courage to pay attention to what you feel physically and emotionally, viewing it as another opportunity to draw closer to your God.
1. How do your feelings present themselves in your physical body? What do you do with those sensations when they arise?
2. What have you learned about yourself and your God through your feelings?
3. Think about a strong emotion you’ve experienced recently. What message is it trying to give you about your life, and how is God present in that message?
Feeling God, thank you for allowing yourself to feel a full depth and range of emotions and for creating us to do the same. Give us courage to feel our feelings and attend to information they give us about ourselves, the world around us, and you. Draw us closer to you as we feel our way through our days. Amen.
Collette Broady Grund is a pastor and mission developer, a mom and stepmom, a widow and a writer. She lives in Mankato, Minnesota where she is the co-director of Connections Ministry, an ecumenical homeless shelter, and one of the founding pastors of the synodically authorized worshipping community called Shelter Church. She also recently published The Grief Lectionary, a six session resource using Scripture to access and process grief. The resource and her writing is available at www.collettebroadygrund.com