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Why Sadness Is a Nonnegotiable Part of Grief

You can perceive it as an expression of profound love.

Key points

  • While many of the negative emotions that accompany grief can be relieved in therapy, sadness cannot.
  • Leaning into sadness can be more effective than trying to run away from it.
  • Sadness is different from depression in that it does not take over life as much as accompany it.
  • Allowing yourself to feel and honor your sadness is a way of loving the person you lost.
Source: Ethan Sykes/Unsplash

Grief is a cacophony of unpleasant emotions: pain, regret, guilt, remorse, fear, anxiety, all waxing and waning at will.

But beneath them all, all the time, is the melancholy oboe that is sadness.

Sadness is the griever’s constant companion. Even on “good” days (we grade on a curve), you hear it in the background, its volume rising and falling, depending on the attention you pay it.

As the therapists in my last post said, there are ways to ease the more torturous emotions—guilt, regret, and the rest. You can reframe things that torment you, shrink them down so that they are not much more than occasional annoyances. As my grief guru, David Kessler, points out, emotions like guilt and regret are often our brain’s way of distracting us from the anguish of pure grief. The sadness that, early on, feels unbearable.

Leaning Into Sadness

We try to run away from the sadness and may even succeed for a time. I traveled for several weeks after my husband, Tom, died. It was a pensive road trip, but pleasant. I sipped bourbon and watched high-desert sunsets, visited with friends, took long hikes, and let my mind wander to all the things that might happen in my life going forward.

But as the time approached to head home, I became afraid, knowing that sadness lay in wait for me there, where there were no distractions and so many memories. I put it off as long as possible, extending my trip several times, because just imagining walking in the door to my empty house broke my heart and stirred panic.

David likes to talk about buffalos in a storm. When they know a storm is coming, buffalos don’t run—they head straight into it, pushing through to better weather on the other side, getting it over with quickly. They lean into it.

This is what David advised me to do and so I did. Instead of emotionally digging in my heels, I put my head down and plowed forward, even making the nine-hour drive from where I was straight through. I was one determined buffalo.

I’d asked a friend to be at my house when I arrived so I would not return to empty rooms, and that helped, but still, returning was almost as difficult as I’d feared. The sadness was there, waiting for me, as I knew it would be. This was the beginning of the months of tears, when all the hobgoblins of grief settled in and demanded my attention, which I gave them through support groups, therapy, reading, and journaling.

Nowadays I have distanced myself from the most pernicious of those hobgoblins—the guilt, regret, and remorse that can claw at you. It required a lot of hard work, and I can’t be sure they are permanently banished, but for now, they have receded, leaving mostly the gentler ache of sadness.

Sadness vs. Depression

Sadness is different from depression. Sadness is a natural response to a situation. Unlike depression, which can be paralyzing, sadness doesn’t so much take over your life as accompany it. It surfaces sometimes, bringing sighs or tears, but it is not the dark obstacle to fully functioning that depression can be. Certainly, sadness can morph into depression, and it's important to know the signs of clinical depression if you feel your life has become unbearably dark. But sadness is not, for the most part, destructive; it is simply part of life.

Sadness is quiet, introverted. It doesn’t tear a hole in your chest like despair or make you clutch your head like guilt. Sadness waits for quiet moments to slip in and nudge you so that tears spring to your eyes or you get that ache—for me, it’s in the middle of my chest—that is your body’s expression of sadness.

Sadness often catches me first thing in the morning, when my edges are still fuzzy and my defenses aren’t awake yet. I start many days with tears before coffee. Not violent, not wracking. Just sad. Plaintive. Yearning.

Sadness is nonnegotiable in grief. I hear people in support groups begging someone to impart the secret of feeling better, to explain how to escape the sadness. But that’s not possible. Yes, we can feel better and worse day to day—even minute to minute—but there is nothing we can do to sidestep or stifle sadness completely. Not in a healthy way, anyway. We can only be buffalos and push through those storms of sadness to the other side.

My Sadness is Love

And the truth, for me, is that I don’t want to stop feeling sad. I don’t fight the sadness or resent it. One of the anomalies of grief is that painful as it is, we may fear the day we no longer feel it. Does that mean we have forgotten? Or that we no longer care? Of course not, but the fear is enough to make us cling to the grief at times, clutch it tightly because it is, in its way, an ongoing connection with the one we lost.

People often tell those who are grieving, “Your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad.” I don’t think that’s entirely true. Our loved ones wouldn’t want us to give up reaching for joy and happiness, they wouldn’t want us to give up on life. But I believe they would want us to be sad, just as they would be sad to lose us—and wouldn’t you want them to be?

There is no chance we will ever forget our loved ones. We will always care. And we will probably hear that melancholy oboe for the rest of our lives. Sometimes it will soar to the surface of our consciousness, reminding us of the loss, other times it will just noodle quietly in the background. I think we must learn to accept and even embrace it.

I don’t fight the sadness. Unlike the anguish of the other emotions, the sadness feels gentle. It feels like love. When it comes over me, I stop whatever I am doing and let myself feel it fully. Sometimes it brings tears, sometimes just that ache in my chest, but it is always a moment to feel everything I have ever felt for Tom. It is my heart remembering.

LinkedIn/Fcebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

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