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August 2012 Ask the Expert: Spirituality and Healing

During the month of August, Living Beyond Breast Cancer expert Debra Jarvis, MDiv, answered your questions about spirituality and healing after a breast cancer diagnosis.

What happens after death? What does one "experience" after death?

How do you answer when someone asks, "Why?"

How can a loving and caring Supreme Being allow sickness, cancer, war, etc.?

When you worked as a hospice counselor, how did you counsel family members who had regrets about the care of a now deceased family member?

How can spirituality impact healing and recovery? Are there any studies about this?

I don’t practice any organized religion right now, but I’m feeling the need for a spiritual element in my life. How do I go about finding out what is right for me? I’m not sure where to start.

Can you give some suggestions for how I can connect to my spiritual self?

Sometimes I just have trouble having faith. How can I restore it?

Question: What happens after death? What does one "experience" after death?

Rev. Jarvis: I have not died myself and can't give you an exact answer. I'm not even sure that those who have actually died and been resuscitated can tell you exactly what happens. They can relate their own experience, but it may not be that way for everyone. 

Question: How do you answer when a patient or family asks, “Why?” Why did this happen? I tried to be a good person, I ate well, I exercised, I prayed...WHY? 

Rev. Jarvis: “Why?” is a useful question if you’re letting off steam. So I think it’s fair to ask that question—for a while. But then you need to move on to, “What now?” and “How can I be with this?” and “What will I learn from this experience?” 

Staying stuck on the “Why?” question is a good way to avoid reality, because while you’re walking around wringing your hands and asking “Why?” you aren’t facing what is right in front of you. Asking “Why?” also presumes that everything in the universe is perfectly ordered and fair.

Question: How can a loving and caring Supreme Being allow sickness, cancer, war, etc.? 

Rev. Jarvis: I think we have free will and that we humans cause our own wars. When it comes to illness and natural disasters, I really don’t know. Seriously. But I do think that there is a Divine Spirit that is present for us through all of it.

Of course you can always find someone who will give you an explanation, i.e. “God is punishing you because you ______ (fill in the blank),” or “God is punishing you because your mother/father/ancestors ______ (fill in the blank)” or “It was something you did in your past life.” 

But how do they really know?

Question: When you worked as a hospice counselor, how did you counsel family members who had regrets about the care of a now deceased family member? Family who in retrospect wished they had done more, yet tried to do the best for the patient when the patient was terminal and dying. Family members who wanted to give their loved one “perfect care and love" but now can think of how they could have done some things differently and better.

Rev. Jarvis: Some people have regrets because it’s part of the grieving process. It’s a way of acknowledging and grieving that you can’t control everything—especially death. Some people say they have regrets because they either want a pat on the back or to be let off the hook. And you know what? That’s okay too. Because if you really did the best you could, there’s nothing else to do. 

Once again you have to ask yourself: How long do I want to put energy into agonizing over what I could have done? 

Remember the movie “Schindler’s List?” Oskar Schindler saved all these Jews from the Nazis and still says, “I could have got more out. If I'd just...I could have got more. I could have gotten one more person, and I didn't! ” And you’re thinking, “Dude! You saved over a thousand Jews!” But I think it was his way of grieving the entire situation. 

Question: How can spirituality impact healing and recovery? Are there any studies about this?

Rev. Jarvis: First let’s define spirituality. In my book it’s a felt connection to something beyond, to something higher that transcends our individual selves. I think it also means how we view life, where we find meaning, what we believe about pain in life and what we believe happens when we die. These are spiritual questions, and different religions have different answers. 

Our answers to these spiritual questions greatly impact our healing and recovery. If we believe that life should be daily candy and unicorns, then we’re going to be pretty mad when we get a flat tire—or a cancer diagnosis.

But if we believe that everyone gets some sewage thrown their way and that it’s up to each of us to find meaning in it, then we’re going to have an entirely different life experience.

And yes, there are many studies out there. All you have to do is Google “spirituality and healing” and then settle in with enough food and water for a year, because that’s how long it will take you to read through them all. These studies are sometimes criticized because the bottom line for many science peeps is that human consciousness is derived from the brain and that its effects are confined to the brain and body of an individual. They don’t think it’s possible for prayer to be effective, but studies show that prayer does make a difference. They are basically saying, "It's not possible, so why study it?" That's a little closed-minded, don't you think?

Question: I don’t practice any organized religion right now, but I’m feeling the need for a spiritual element in my life. How do I go about finding out what is right for me? There are so many practices out there that I’m not sure where to start.

Rev. Jarvis: A good place to start is by looking at the spiritual beliefs with which you were raised and asking yourself where you are with those beliefs now. You may be surprised to find that your beliefs have changed or even more surprised to find that they are the same. If you haven’t been raised with any beliefs,then what resonates with you? Ask yourself the following:

  • How do I view life?
  • What do I think about pain and difficulty in life?
  • What do I think happens when I die?
  • Where do I find meaning in my life?
  • What do I need to nurture my spiritual life? A supportive community? Spiritual direction? Solitude?

Don’t underestimate the value of a supportive community—a church, a sangha, a temple community. Some think that organized religion consists of a bunch of mindless drones who all believe the same thing. In fact, my experience is that it is a group of people who are actively exploring their spiritual beliefs and seeking to live them out with support from one another. 

Question: Can you give some suggestions for how I can connect to my spiritual self?

Rev. Jarvis: To connect to your spiritual self or hear the divine voice within you, you have to still your mind. How can you do this?

You can sit on a pillow and watch your breath. You can knit, knead bread, listen to music, paint, weed or do anything that focuses your frenzied, frantic, uncontrolled mind.

I often hear my spirit speaking when I’m writing in my journal and answer questions like these:

  • Where did I find joy today?
  • What surprised me?
  • What am I curious about?

I also connect to my spiritual self when I’m thinking less about me and more about others. Now before anyone pops their Spanx, I’m not talking about people who can’t accept help when they need it or those who are doormats/victims/martyrs. Please don't make me give you the doormat/victim/martyr lecture. You know who you are.

Cancer can make you super self-absorbed. How can it not? Everyone is asking about your white blood cell count, your temperature, your appetite, your skin, your mouth sores, your stools and how are you?

When I was diagnosed, I thought, “Holy smoked cheeses, I’m already self-absorbed! I need to keep working as long as I can.” Listening to other women helped me to correct my perspective and kept me from focusing on myself 100 percent of the day. I got it down to about 90 percent. 

Question: Sometimes I just have trouble having faith. How can I restore it?

Rev. Jarvis: We often think faith is like exercise: We know it’s good for us, but honestly who has time?  But we should have some kind of faith, right?

I don’t know what you mean by not “having faith.” Does it mean you no longer hold your spiritual beliefs? That you don’t feel like going to church/temple/synagogue/mosque? That you don’t believe there is something larger and higher that transcends our experience of this life?

What is this “faith” that you are having trouble having? Have you lost faith in yourself, in other people or the goodness of the universe? Maybe it’s time to revisit what you believe about life. 

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