Sinking Into Sadness

In his op-ed Getting Grief Right (NYT 1/10/15), author and psychotherapist Patrick O’Malley briefly outlines what he’s identified as three “chapters” in the story of loss, as based on his own and his patients’ experiences. Namely, chapter one being the degree of attachment and its bearing on the intensity of grief, chapter two being the death itself, and chapter three, as the time when the outside world stops grieving with you.

I was reassured to read O’Malley’s encouragement to his patient to let herself sink into her sadness instead of trying to reassure others that she’d come to some kind of closure. I have certainly felt the strong pull to do this (and have succumbed to the pretense in various situations), especially now that a year has passed since my sister’s death. I have needed to consciously and consistently thwart the reaction, which feels like a betrayal to myself, and to my sister. I think the cultural reality that the outside world does stop grieving with you, creates this compulsion to put on a strong face. O’Malley mentions the exhaustion of keeping up the facade, and coupled with the sheer exhaustion of grief itself, seems to be a recipe for much more distress when the limits of human endurance are reached.

One of the ways I try to dismantle the facade is to try to be aware of how I’m really feeling when asked how I am, and to reply as simply and honestly as possible. If the circumstances are ripe for more of a conversation, great. If not, at least there’s no self-recrimination. Another thing that really helps is to talk as regularly as possible with my “safe” people. Those friends and family who are trusted grief-confidants  –  with whom I can speak frankly about my sadness, pain, regret, and the gamut of emotions that don’t normally see the light of day as the world marches on.

Privately,  I feel most able to “sink into my sadness” by pouring out the rawness of my pain in my journal, and by regularly carving out the time and space to cry – sometimes alone (unless I’m feeling particularly vulnerable) and sometimes with a trusted person, like my spouse. Crying brings me a temporary calm, and a renewed appreciation for the magnitude of both the death and the life for which I now mourn.

2 thoughts on “Sinking Into Sadness

  1. What happens when we are asked the simple question: “How are you?” ? Even if we are not in the midst of mourning the loss of a loved one, we feel compelled to answer in a positive tone. Our culture is not only “grief phobic”, but “sadness phobic” as well!
    I remembered after reading your honest and raw story of needing to cry, that I felt shame around crying for many years. I’m one of those people who “cries easily”. In my 20’s it was embarrassing. I was 33 years old when I realized that crying was not a problem! It was the shaming and uncomfortable reaction of other people that was wrong.
    But people are not to blame for their “sadness phobia”. It is how we are raised in American culture. In our culture the goal is to always be happy. We need to start accepting the gamut of human emotion. The reality is that life will continue to be both painful and beautiful at once. We are born and we will die. No one is withheld from sadness. No one is excempt from loss.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I could not agree more that we are all responding to, and from, a cultural imperative around the goal of happiness. And, a normalized view that any kind of lingering in difficult emotions (or worse yet an embracing of them) will choke off the promise of that all-important goal. As if we can only have one *without* the other! The understanding that life, as you so aptly put it, “will continue to be both painful and beautiful at once,” is missing from mainstream culture. I think that missing piece from our collective story, is what fuels shame and embarrassment around expressing our sad and other-than-positive emotions.

    Liked by 1 person

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