“It happens upon you. It’s bigger than you. There’s a humility you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself”
These are the words of writer Elizabeth Gilbert talking about how she experienced grief after the death of her partner. She is writing about the futility of resistance in the face of grief, and we can learn so much about how to deal with our other sadnesses through a willingness to face and experience them.
Long before my own slow submergence into despair, I had closed down emotionally. I didn’t realise it at the time but there were so many signs. Other people’s happiness looked strange to me as if I simply couldn’t understand it anymore. Most telling of all was that I stopped creating. I stopped writing and I didn’t pick up a guitar for a decade. I’d often look at it, sitting in the corner, and idly wonder why I didn’t feel like playing anymore, but it never occurred to me that, through an unwillingness to feel my own emotions, I had nothing to express through music.
As Gilbert points out “creation is the antidote to despair”. I didn’t learn that until much later.
It isn’t just death which has this impact. A reluctance to “feel” can emerge in many different places. When we are weighed down by anxiety we want anything but to feel our emotion. When we are struggling with lost love or rejection the work of standing in the pain feels like the worst place in the world.
But there is no way out of sadness other than through it.
But we often refuse to go through it. Despite the box of tissues on the table beside the chair in my room, clients habitually apologise for using them to dab their eyes.
The mixture of shame and discomfort is enough to repress even the most ardent pain and sadness.
Why is it so hard for us to accept that fully embracing our sadness might be the only way to dull a little of its sting?
Sadness emerges when we face the loss of the life we wanted but cannot have. One with a loving partner who really cared for us. One where our parents satisfied our needs rather than struggled interminably with their own. One where those we loved didn’t die so prematurely, or at all.
But, as we block out the powerful sadness which mourns the life we wanted but cannot live, we are unable to fully experience the one that we have. Through anchoring ourselves to what we have lost we end up losing everything.
Sadness is an enabler. It allows us the luxury of letting go, as long as we are willing to pay the price of walking through it. A journey which is always hard and often longer than we feel we can cope with.
Sometimes, in the middle of sadness, I used to ask why I was still suffering, having been so willing to eventually accept my own dark emotion.
But sadness wasn’t finished with me. It is never truly finished with any of us and that, paradoxically, is a fundamental part of life’s beauty. The contrast between light and dark.
As Gilbert points out,
“This is the job of the living. To be willing to bow down before everything which is bigger than you, and nearly everything in this world is bigger than you”.
So, rather than asking when sadness will end, we are better to ask only where it is taking us.