Several years ago when my uncle died suddenly, my aunt described her grief as “a black hole”. While the initial stages of her loss were made bearable by the rituals of the funeral, her deep faith, and the comfort of friends, she soon expressed that “when everyone got on with their lives, I felt like I fell into a black hole and couldn’t climb out.”
Grief is accompanied by many familiar emotions but are experienced in a distinct way because they are shrouded in loss. Because loss can be so intense, some of our commonly practiced strategies for dealing with pain fail us. Sadness is one emotion that when coupled with grief can result in overwhelming emptiness.
Life is a mixture of good times and not so good times, incredible challenges and incredible joys, profound happiness and deep sadness. Throughout life we find ways of managing, coping, and expressing each of these emotions. Sadness is one of the first emotions we are taught to manage. We lose our turn when playing a game, our pet dies, we cannot go to grandma’s house as planned and we are sad. Our earliest experiences with sadness set the stage for our ability later to cope with life’s disappointments and losses. Parents, guardians and teachers who help children develop creative, healthy ways to respond to feeling sad, are indeed giving them a much-needed lifetime tool. When I was sad as a child I read a book. This successfully took me away from my sorrow, transporting my mind and heart to another world. It didn’t matter what I read or even if there was greater desolation in the book than in my own life, the act of being released from a momentary grief helped me to readdress it later with more objectivity. This practice continues to serve me well. But when I suffered the grief of losing someone I loved very much, the last thing I wanted to do was read a book. Hence, we sometimes need to find a new strategy to cope with sadness as we grieve.
Sadness associated with grief is unique because death’s permanency is one of its most potent and present features. One woman I know who was willing to feel and face her sadness awarded herself a daily “tears time” in which she could retreat into her room and her heart and allow sadness to have its way with her. Sometimes she cried, other times she had a conversation with her sadness. What was brilliant about this is that she was also addressing the reality that, “what we resist, persists”. Another great thing she did was to monitor her time. “I knew”, she said, “if two years passed and I was spending an hour in my room crying every day, that I would need professional help.” Within a matter of months, she was only having “tear time” about once a week.
There is no prescribed approach or length of time for experiencing grief-associated sadness which is relative to each unique loss. Each of us must find an effective strategy to address grief’s sadness, one that expresses the pain of the loss and works toward dissipating it. Whether using a lifelong method used to cope with sadness or a strategy like “tears time” designed for temporary use, the healthiest thing we can do for the pain of loss is to address it head-on.
“There is a sacredness in tears… They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.”