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What Do You Do When the Sadness Overwhelms You?

When yet one more horrifying thing happens, you need a place to refuel.

Image by Carrie Knowles
Do you have a path that will help you carry your sadness?
Source: Image by Carrie Knowles

When our youngest child was in kindergarten, he calmly got up from his desk, took his small backpack, left school in the middle of the day, and walked the half-mile home. Three times. On the third occasion, we were sitting in the principal’s office discussing his first two escapes.

To everyone’s surprise, one of our neighbors stepped into the office with our son in tow. Our neighbor found him standing on the corner waiting for the light to change so he could cross the street and go home.

When the principal asked why he left school to go home, his answer was quick and sure. Without hesitation, he said: “When the sadness in my heart is too big to hold, I leave and go home.”

When the sadness in my heart is too big to hold

How big does a sadness need to be for it to be too much to hold? How about a parent’s grief over the loss of a child caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting? Or the unprovoked killing of shoppers in a neighborhood grocery now labeled a hate crime, as if that clarifies what happened and why. Or yet another mass shooting in an elementary school where children and two adults are killed by a high school student described as a loner.

How many times and ways can our hearts be broken? Where can we go when the sadness in our world is too big to hold? Where is that “home” that will ease our sadness?

It is clear that “thoughts and prayers” are no longer adequate words to soothe the sadness. In fact, thoughts and prayers are no balm for a broken heart, a way to ease the grief, or a remedy for the sickness we are being forced to acknowledge in our society.

Are there any right words to say? Any actions that can fix a sadness?

The principal asked our son what it would take for the sadness he felt in his heart to be bearable enough for him to stay in school. He thought about it for a minute then said if he could go to the library after school every day, he would be okay.

We made a contract with him that for every day he stayed in school, I would take him to the library so he could read, look at magazines, or whatever he wanted until he felt he was ready to go home.

He needed time alone with the books he loved. He needed an escape from his sadness, one he could count on.

Do you have an escape plan?

I’m not advocating that any of us run away from what is happening. This is not the moment to look the other way or say you are in my thoughts and prayers and pretend nothing is happening because it didn’t happen to you. But I do believe we all need our one place where we can step out of the sadness and find comfort, be it a house of worship, a garden, the library, a walk in the park, or any place else that gives us a sense of peace and well-being.

We are all carrying too much sadness in our hearts right now.

Where is that place that will give us a moment to take that deep breath, right our worlds, unburden our hearts, and find a way back to strength and purpose? We need that place so we can believe once again that our world can be better and that we can do something about making it better.

We might not have the power to enact world peace, but we can do something

After a couple of months of going to the library every day after school, our son told us that many children who came to the library only read comic books. Books are books to him. There was no judgment in his statement. What bothered him was that the comic books were shopworn and ragged and the children who liked to read them deserved better.

He asked the children's librarian if he could give his allowance to her to buy new comic books. She said the library couldn’t accept money from individuals. I told her she needed to find a way. That it was important not only to him but to the children who read the comic books.

She found a way and he began saving his money and suggesting titles the library should buy.

What can we do?

We can stop saying: my thoughts and prayers are with you.

We should and must find ways to connect and erase the idea of “us” being better than “them.”

When we tell someone who is wrestling with grief and or anger over their loss that we are “holding space” for them, it means that we are listening without interrupting or passing judgment.

Holding space is a real step toward building connections, not fueling further hate and isolation. It just might be the best step towards stopping the anger and the killing.

The longer we refuse to really listen to people who have different beliefs than ours, the longer the battle between us and them will go on, and that’s a battle neither side will ever win no matter how many guns people own.

I often think about those comic books my son bought with his allowance.

I’d like to believe they made a difference.