When my mother died, a friend came up to me as I was holding myself and crying, and told me I had a lot of courage to let myself feel so bad. At the time I thought her words were weird, to say the least. My mother had just passed away from lung cancer. I had spent the last year and a half seesawing between complete despair and devastation and optimism and hope. Of course I felt bad — I felt terrible. My world had just caved in. All the plans I had made with my mother would never be realized. The life she had planned for herself after losing my father two years before would never happen. And I now felt alone in the world.
It wasn’t until I returned home after my mother’s death that I understood my friend’s words. I realized that not only does grief take courage, but feeling bad about any situation takes courage in our society of positive thinkers. We are bombarded by so many messages to hide our feelings, unless, of course, they are positive. There are also those who believe that you cause everything that happens to you.
Embracing Your Emotions
Several years ago, in a car accident, I was a passenger and the driver of the other car ran a red light. I hurt my back and had to miss several weeks of work. Upon hearing I was sad and a little depressed, my doctor responded by telling me to look over my life and see what I had done to bring this upon myself. As far as I knew I had just been a passenger in a car on the way to get groceries. I didn’t know I had the power to cause an accident from the passenger side. All I wanted from my doctor was sympathy.
A phrase that people often throw around as a way of pushing their feelings aside is: “This is a learning experience.” It’s true that we learn from all our experiences, no matter how awful. But not everything happens to teach us a lesson. Before we can learn from sad or bad situations, we must first go through them and feel the pain. Denying our feelings only makes recovery longer. Kwambe Ohmdahda, a registered nurse whose patients have life-threatening illnesses, says “the shame or outward denial of feeling bad begins when we are children. When youngsters are angry or depressed, we tell them to stop. Children grow through their emotions and we need to support them and allow that growth.”
American society has never encouraged people to express bad or sad feelings, or even to cry. However, in many other societies, including Jewish and Arab cultures, it is more acceptable to mourn and cry profusely, and to not return to work immediately following a death. The bereaved sit in the house for a week while people visit, comfort and bring food. I spoke to a colleague from India who recently lost her mother. She talked about the problems she was having returning to the United States after her mother’s death: “In Indian culture we have certain rituals around mourning. Showing grief is not only accepted, but expected. When I returned to this country after losing my mother, my co-workers couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel like going out dancing with them after only a month. They thought I should make myself feel better whether I wanted to or not.”
In this society, it takes courage to tell yourself that you can feel bad no matter what others think. You have to cope with other peoples’ judgements, such as, “Isn’t she over that yet? It’s been two months already”; “Why does he still feel bad about that divorce, she never was right for him”; or “Feeling bad and crying is such a waste of time”.
Healing with Time and Support
Of course, there are appropriate reactions for different events. It would be unhealthy if I broke my favorite dish and then sat in the house crying for two weeks telling my sad story to everyone I knew. When my mother died, I needed to function after a certain amount of time, but I continue to carry the pain with me and I laugh or smile when I remember some of the things we did together. I am grateful for the time I had with her. Little by little, I have learned to enjoy my friends and my life again, and allowed myself to integrate the loss with my new experiences.
Tragedies and disappointments are inevitable. When we repress our feelings they come out in other self-destructive ways, including anger, rage, overeating, anorexia, drugs, alcohol, smoking or depression. It takes more courage to feel bad, and let people know how we feel, than to pretend everything is all right. I like to say in public that I feel so much better now that I have the courage to feel bad. If you find yourself feeling down, try a little self-talk: “A (sad, tragic, disappointing, or other appropriate word) thing happened. It is normal to feel bad, and express it. I will be more emotionally healthy and will be able to let go sooner if I feel, rather than deny.
It is also a good idea to talk to a supportive person when you have doubts about the validity of your feelings, a person who will listen and reassure you of your right to feel bad. Make sure the people you ask for support are able to give it. And finally, consider the following questions and how they relate to the experiences of your own life: How will we be able to recognize joy if we have never felt sadness? How can we know fulfillment if we have never known loss? And how can we be human if we never feel?