The thought of going to a funeral used to terrify me. Walking into a room filled with sadness and grief evoked — well — an intense desire not to go. Anxiety was all I could feel. It obscured the emotions I wanted to have like sadness and compassion. And, I secretly felt ashamed that I didn’t have “the right feelings."
It was not death itself that bothered me, it was being in the presence of grief. Why did sadness make me so anxious? Why did it turn me into a vibrating, heart-pounding, emotional mess, uncomfortable in my own skin? I felt pressure to fix sadness: to say or do just the right thing. I thought I was supposed to cheer up the person suffering, as though they had a problem to be solved. Eventually, I figured out intellectually that I could not fix someone’s sadness. Yet, the visceral pressure to fix it didn’t go away and neither did my anxiety.
An education in emotions helps anxiety
Sadness is a core emotion evoked when we experience losses. When core emotions arise, they need to flow. If we push emotions down, the energy they hold gets blocked. Blocked emotions hurt us. Blocked emotions put stress on our mind and body, eventually causing symptoms like depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, stomach problems, and more. In order to let emotions flow, we need to feel safe-enough to experience them. Learning what to expect when experiencing an emotion helps make the experience more manageable, less scary and even less painful sometimes. Feeling connected to another person with whom we feel safe and comfortable is another important factor that helps make emotions bearable. I didn’t know any of these things when I was younger. And why would I? Our culture doesn't teach us what we need to know about emotions.
On my way to becoming an emotion-centered psychotherapist, I learned to just be with sadness, my own and other’s, and not try to fix it. I learned my presence and willingness to offer support was all I could realistically do. Being there was enough.
Here are some additional lessons I’ve learned:
Make sure you don’t inadvertently make someone feel ashamed for their sadness by saying things like, “You really shouldn't be so sad” or “Isn’t it time you moved past this? or "Get over it!" If someone is ashamed, self-conscious, or feels you cannot deal with their emotions, they will likely hide their sadness. This impedes the ability to move through it and feel better.
Problem-solving isn’t typically what people want. Remember your job is not to fix it. I sometimes ask, “Is there anything I can do for you like make you a cup of tea?”
There is no normal time frame for grieving. Emotions resolve when they are ready. Many of my patients have said to me, “I should be over this (loss) by now.” I let them know that everyone and every loss is unique.
An invitation to talk is helpful. “If you’d like to talk about your loss (or what's making you sad), I want to listen.”
Sometimes words don’t help. Just convey, “I’m here” by your physical presence--just be around.
Show your willingness to offer physical comfort (if that is comfortable for you). For example, some people will accept a comforting hug, a shoulder to cry on, or a hand to hold, especially when you invite someone in with a gesture like your open-arms or your extended hand.
When you are sad, try to communicate your needs.
Our loved ones cannot read our mind. (But wouldn't it be great if they could!) And, many people feel the way I did: that they are supposed to solve or fix sadness. Your family and friends may seem awkward or defensive in the face of your sadness simply because they don’t know what to do and that makes them feel uncomfortable. Therefore, we need to communicate our needs to the people around us. Take the time to teach your partner and family what you need. For example, let’s say you are feeling the loss from your adult child moving away. Your partner may notice your sadness and try to fix it by saying, “It’s not so bad.”
You might say in response, “I am sad. I just need you to let me feel this way. You can help by holding me when I cry and just listening when I need to talk. I don’t need you to say or do anything else. Would that be ok?” Most partners are relieved to get guidance.
We can comfort our own sadness to help feel better.
If we are aware that we are sad, we can help ourselves. For example, be compassionate to your sadness. Don’t put pressure on yourself to feel any different than you actually feel. Sadness and grief are painful enough without adding a layer of judgment or pressure “to get over it” on top. To help you move through your sadness, validate it. Take it day by day or minute by minute. Ask yourself what you need for comfort, and give yourself permission to get it.
Treat your own sadness and grief the same way you would treat others you love and care about.
For me, it was a great relief to learn that sadness does not need fixing. Permission to feel our emotions by offering time, space and presence, is a wonderful gift you can always give to others and to your self.