The thought of going to a funeral used to be a terrifying prospect for 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 feelings I wanted to have like sadness and compassion. And, I secretly felt ashamed that I didn’t have “the right” feelings.
Core emotions, like sadness, are evolutionarily designed survival programs that all of us have. They are hard-wired deep in the middle part of the brain and arise involuntarily depending on what is going on in our immediate environment.
Sadness is a core emotion that we feel when we experience losses. You might wonder, “Why did we evolve to have sadness to survive? It’s so painful, why do we need it?” Good question! The answer has to do with the importance of human connection. We could not survive without emotions that drive us to form partnerships and make families. People go to great lengths to keep close those we love and those who comfort us, lest we risk loss, then grief, a most profound form of sadness. Without the emotion of sadness, we wouldn’t care what or who was lost to us. Without grief, we could not love. They are complements.
It was not death itself that bothered me. It was being in the presence of grief. Why did this make me so anxious? Why did it turn me into a vibrating, heart-pounding emotional mess, uncomfortable in my own skin?
The impulse to fix it and take away the pain.
I felt a pressure to say or do just the right thing; to fix the sadness. I thought I was supposed to cheer up the person suffering as though they had a problem to be solved. Eventually, I gained enough knowledge to know intellectually that I could not fix someone’s sadness, yet despite knowing this, the pressure to fix someone didn’t go away and neither did my anxiety.
A little emotion education helped transform my anxiety and taught me how to be with sadness.
Core emotions are automatically triggered by life events. When core emotions, like sadness, arise, they need to flow. If they are thwarted, the energy they hold gets blocked. Blocked emotions hurt us and cause many complications to our mental and physical health.
Emotions are totally natural. But, we do however need room and space to feel sadness so it can flow until we naturally recover from our loss. And we need to feel safe to move through our sadness. That’s where others can be of help. Not feeling alone helps a lot.
On my way to becoming an AEDP psychotherapist and learning about emotions and anxiety from a neuroscience and trauma standpoint, I learned to just be with sadness and not fix it. Just my presence and willingness to offer support was enough.
Our partners, children, friends and colleagues get sad from time to time. That is part of life. Here are some helpful guidelines for how to be there for someone in the midst of sadness or grief.
- If someone is ashamed, self conscious, or thinks he/she has to take care of others, they will likely hide their sadness. They won’t be able to surrender to the feeling. Make sure to convey, “It’s ok to feel sad.”
- Problem solving isn’t usually what people want. Don’t immediately offer solutions. I sometimes ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
- There is no typical time frame for grieving. 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. There is no time frame.
- An invitation to talk is helpful. “If you’d like to talk about your loss, I want to listen.”
- Let someone know explicitly that you’re here when they need and happy to leave them alone when they need to be alone.
- No need to say anything. Just convey, “I’m here” by your physical presence.
- We can offer comfort with gestures or words: A comforting hug, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, a hand to hold.
- Make sure you don’t shame someone for their sadness by making comments like “you really should not be so sad or isn’t it time you moved past this?” The freedom to feel our sadness is important.
Treat your own sadness and grief the same way you would treat others you love.
Comforting our own sadness the same way we comfort others helps us feel better sooner. Be compassionate to your sadness. Don’t but pressure on yourself to feel any different than you actually feel. Sadness and grief is 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 if that’s what you need to get through. Ask yourself what you need for comfort and give yourself permission to get it.
Lastly, take the time to teach your partner and family members what you need. Many people feel the way I did: that they are supposed to solve or fix your sadness. You can use words and be direct about what’s happening for you. For example, let’s say you are feeling the loss from your adult child moving away. Your partner may notice your sadness and respond by trying to tell you why it’s not so bad. You might say in response, “I am sad. I just need you to let me feel this way, to hold me if I cry and to just listen when I need to talk about it. I don’t need you to say or do anything else. Would that be ok?”
For me, it was a great relief to learn that sadness does not need fixing. Offering someone permission to feel their feelings plus unlimited time, space and presence is a wonderful gift you can always give to others and to your Self.