Coping With Emotions

When Losing a Loved One to Cancer Challenges Your Faith

Losing a loved one to cancer may challenge your faith. When you're ready to tackle the spiritual questions, you want to be kind to yourself first.

Losing a loved one to cancer can be traumatic, but everyone will experience it differently based on personality, faith and relationship with the person who died. In the grieving process, you may wonder why your faith is letting you down or start questioning your spirituality. This is a normal, if still troubling, occurrence that will take time and thought to deal with.

How Faith and Grief Relate to Each Other

While your loved one was battling cancer, you may have leaned on your faith or maybe didn’t give it a second thought until you suffered a loss. Death can bring confusion on this front. The Family Caregiver Alliance includes questioning your faith among the symptoms of grief for those mourning the loss of a loved one. This fluctuation in faith is experienced across belief systems and is more a function of grieving than an indication of your devoutness.

Grief can shine a spotlight on those questions that lurk in the back of your mind. Those questions about life and faith demand attention once grief points out their existence. It’s common to avoid these concerns because they require time and energy, and you just don’t feel up for it. In that case, you might avoid anything having to do with your faith community. You might be angry with God or feel bad about having these thoughts. People often fear that questioning faith means a loss of faith, but that’s not quite what’s going on. It’s true that some people do change their beliefs at this point, but it’s because questioning faith is part of grieving and spiritual growth, and growth means change. It’s natural and not something to stress about while you’re processing your sorrow.

How to Nurture Your Spirituality

When losing a loved one to cancer, you don’t have to lose your faith. There are ways to work through your spiritual struggles and maintain (or adapt) the beliefs you had before.

To start, be kind to yourself. These questions are part of your spiritual path. Find someone to talk to who won’t be judgmental about the feelings you’re experiencing. Many counselors and chaplains are specifically trained to help people work through grief, and an interfaith chaplain won’t push you in the direction of any one religion.

If religious services currently make you uncomfortable, you can find other ways to connect with your spiritual community. Does your place of worship have social events, such as potluck dinners? Still try to connect with others who share your faith or people who have the strength and compassion to allow you to embrace both your faith and your questions.

Additionally, research independently. Libraries and the internet have wisdom to share regarding spiritual questions. Learning something new, or considering a question from a different perspective, is a wonderful way to come to a new understanding. Research your faith, and vow to learn at least five new things about it.

It’s also important to take care of your body. In addition to the intense emotions that accompany losing a loved one to cancer, you may be fatigued, and these emotions add to your exhaustion. Take some time to focus on your health. Remember the basics, like eating well, meditation, going outside and exercising. If feelings of anger or doubt overwhelm you, go for a run or take a shower. It’s easy to forget those steps when you’re grieving, but each one can help you feel better.

Most importantly, have some patience with yourself. Often, these feelings of doubt subside as you work through the process of grieving.

UVA's Interfaith Chaplains are available to speak with patients as well as their family members about faith concerns.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley