I’ve never dealt with a grief that’s so messily intertwined with guilt before. I’ve never had constant feelings of sadness plague me and show up at the most inopportune times like they have since the accident. I’ve also never been more acutely aware of the fact that people just don’t know how to deal, or maybe don’t want to deal, with other people’s sadness, and that has made me feel very isolated at times.
You know those prescriptive “be happy” and “live in the moment” and “cherish the little things” phrases that seem to circulate around Facebook and (probably) other social media sites, usually through memes with kittens or peaceful nature backdrops? Or other cliché sayings like “get over it” or “pick up the pieces and move on” or even the most popular phrase these days thanks to Disney, “let it go?” Even though these phrases seem helpful and well meaning, what they really boil down to is one simple truth that the world wants you to believe: you must be happy all the time because being sad is bad.
We see this is true in our daily relationships. As soon as we share anything going wrong in our lives, the people around us offer words of comfort and sometimes advice. They want to fix things for us! Or they pat us on the back and tell us things will get better so keep your chin up! They tell us not to worry and focus on the positives! These gestures are often well-intentioned, but they simply reinforce the idea that we should do everything in our power to not be sad. Don’t be sad – stop it! Be happy instead!
Don’t get me wrong; words of comfort in a time of need can be just the ticket sometimes. I’m also not suggesting that the people around us are simply patronizing us and are not actually listening to our problems. And of course we should try to find more ways to be happy because being happy is more fun than being sad.
What I’m suggesting is that the notion “feeling sad is bad” is so engrained in our society that when we encounter another person feeling sad our immediate reaction is to make them feel better; not only them, but we feel the need to force ourselves to be happy all the time too, though that’s just not possible. Even people who are consistently upbeat and seem to really love life aren’t always happy; they either do a better job at projecting their happiness, or they are just naturally happier than others.
You may very well be asking by now, “what the heck are you getting at, Sarah?”
I want society to realize that feeling sad, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. When we’re sad, our bodies are trying to manage our pent-up and stressful emotions, and releasing that pressure however we need to (through tears or venting for example) is not a bad thing. Feeling sadness is also often a projection of our compassionate natures, which is an admirable human trait and that’s definitely not a bad thing.
We, as a society, are told sad feelings are bad and that we must make ourselves happy again as soon as possible, but since we don’t know how to properly deal with these sad feelings, in our haste we resort to one extreme or the other: we either wallow or we avoid. Over the last month and a half I’ve done both and neither has helped. Wallowing is taking that sad feeling and thinking on it and thinking on it and thinking on it until you’re a puddle of your former self, and you’re so bogged down in sad thoughts that it seems like you’ll never get out. Avoiding, on the other hand, means ignoring everything to do with the situation and sometimes even acting like it didn’t happen, which of course doesn’t make the issue go away; instead it’ll sit and stew until it can bubble up later, unannounced, maybe during a fight with your significant other…
A part of me thought I deserved to wallow, because to try to forget and move on felt disrespectful. Then I tried avoiding the situation because I didn’t want to feel sad anymore, because feeling the sadness led to the wallowing, but avoiding my feelings and the situation just created more stress and more sadness.
I was stuck in a vicious circle. I was feeling sadness like I’ve never felt before, and I had no one to talk to because no one really understood how I was feeling. I also felt that the majority of people around me just wanted me to be better and happy (get over it already!), and/or the prospect of being around a sad version of me was too much to handle so they just didn’t address the issue anymore or at all. I can’t blame them (they are conditioned by society after all), but I felt very lonely.
Then I went to a couple of counseling sessions and learned all of these simple truths that you’d think would be obvious to us. Simple truths like: feeling sad is normal and healthy; and wallowing and avoiding will not help; and everyone around me wants to help, but they don’t really know how and that’s not their fault. I learned that feelings of sadness will always lead to wallowing or avoiding unless you see the feeling for what it is and let it run its natural course; in doing so the feeling will pass naturally as our minds shift through thought after thought, sometimes much sooner than we expect. We will continually cycle through feelings of sadness and happiness throughout our lives, and we should strive to ride the waves rather than let them drown us.
I also learned that feeling sad is only worthwhile if the feelings are based on something true. For example, it makes sense to feel sad about being in a car accident that killed my dog because that is exactly what happened. On the flip side, feeling sadness over the guilt of walking away from the accident unscathed is unnecessary because being injured myself would not actually make the situation any better; therefore the idea that my being injured would be a good thing is not based in truth. Feel sad that I lost Jade, but don’t feel sad that I’m not hurt; seems like this should be self-evident, but of course sometimes we just need that objective point of view to tell us these things.
The other key to mastering feelings of sadness is taking action. Like my husband who always approaches problems by thinking of ways to fix them, you’re only going to feel better if you take steps to either make the situation better, and to learn from it. Then, when you’re feeling those sad feelings you can recall the steps you took and feel comforted by the fact that you did everything in your power under the circumstances. I have my list and I’m currently making my way through it, and it feels good guys, it feels good.
Bottom line is: it’s okay to feel sad. Please, people, don’t be so afraid to feel sad! Feeling sadness has the potential to make you stronger if you’re willing to learn from the situation. And if you feel sadness that you are unable to deal with on your own, consider seeking out a counselor; for me, it’s the healthiest move I’ve made to my own recovery. There’s no shame in asking for help. And please don’t be afraid to let others feel sad around you; show them you care by listening and offering the comfort of your presence.
What are you feeling sad about today? What are you feeling happy about today?