“I just feel like it’s never ending… like I should be more over it by now,” my friend says, her eyes looking down at her mug of tea. She lost a loved one three years ago in tragic circumstances.
Her words make me sad, and there are layers to my sadness: I’m sad for her loss, her grief, for the difficulty she faces daily as she continues her life without this person. Also, I’m saddened by her belief about her suffering; that it’s somehow not okay or normal to still be so sad.
This is not a woman in ruins. She has a good life. A job she loves, a beautiful home, and family. She’s a wonderful mother to her children. But she is deeply sad. She carries this sadness around with her everywhere she goes—on the train to work, on the sofa while she watches Netflix, out to dinner.
Her sadness is heavy, yet she carries it with a grace that belies its weight. It’s not ruining her. Yet it’s there, like a psychological shadow, even in her happier moments.
This conversation made me think more broadly about our societal beliefs about loss, our attitudes toward sadness, and the inherent problems these give birth to.
My grandmother died over six years ago now. She died horribly and quickly from a brain tumor. From the time of her diagnosis to her death, there were only three weeks.
Her death didn’t feel real for a long time, and initially I didn’t grieve as I expected I would.
Months afterward it started to sink in. As it did, the sadness came. It didn’t consume my every waking thought and feeling, but it was there beside me, wanting me to turn toward it. For a long time I found this very hard to do.
My cultural conditioning that sadness was ‘bad’ added a toxic layer on top of the raw experience of sadness and made me feel somehow ‘wrong’ each time I felt sad.
A Kind of Healing-Perfectionism
“Get over it.”
These words suffuse the space around us, deeply ingrained in the cultural lexicon of healing. “I’m over it,” we say to ourselves. We assure others that they will do the same. Worst of all, we hold the belief that we should be over it by a certain time period.
We believe that this is the hallmark of a perfectly recovered loss/trauma/sadness; the gold standard of “I am perfectly okay now.”
Is anyone ever perfectly okay? Is this really what we’re aiming for?
Is there anyone who doesn’t walk around with the roots of sadness grounded in their being, even as their happiness exists above these depths? I don’t know of these people.
What I do know is that the greatest lie we’ve been sold about success and happiness is that these things exist in our lack of sadness or pain.
The notion of “getting over” a loss speaks more to an ideal than a reality. Like many ideals, it’s alluring, but the closer you move to it, the more you see the danger. It gets in the way of our understanding about loss and grief, and it congests the fullness of our hearts.
It disconnects us from our emotional truth and gives credence to an expectation about the course of grief that we cannot live up to. When this happens, there is one predictable outcome: We add judgment to our suffering and turn a natural process into a pathological problem, something to be ‘fixed.’
Certainly, when it comes to dealing with loss, there are times when a normal emotional response can turn into a condition in need of intervention—if our initial sadness fails to abate with the passage of time and we continue to be obsessed with our grief and unable to function in our everyday lives.
In such cases, therapy, and possibly medication, are required. Yet, within the boundaries of what can be considered a healthy reaction to loss, there is a great range.
What does a normal, healthy response to loss look like? How should it feel? How long is it okay to still experience sadness? When should we get over it? Should we ever? Says who? Why? What does “getting over it” even mean?
When we think about the need to get over a loss, what we’re referring to is arriving at a psychological destination of being untouchable, unshakable. Reaching a point where we are largely unaffected, even by the fondest memory, or the most difficult one, of that which we have lost.
It’s a kind of healing-perfectionism that needs to be named for what it is. Such ideals around suffering cause further, and unnecessary pain, and obstruct the very heart of what it means to be human. When we use the language of “getting over” loss, we are reinforcing the belief that sadness is something that must be overcome.
Co-existing with Our Sadness
We are conditioned to move toward things that feel good and to retract from those that feel bad. Primally speaking, it’s about survival. Sadness is one such ‘bad’ feeling; we recoil from it. Yet this retraction isn’t so much based on the inherent quality of the emotion as much as our insidious belief that sadness is, per se, bad.
Of course, sadness isn’t a pleasurable experience—psychologically speaking, it’s classed as a “negative” emotion. However, we are not simple beings, and the primal drives we have are not so simple either; as such, it is often necessary to go against our basic instincts—to move away from pleasure (as in the case of addiction) and to move toward pain (as in healing).
In healing from loss, ignoring and resisting our sadness will only send it deeper into our psyche and our bodies. One thing we know for certain is that when we fail to acknowledge our feelings, they continue to affect us anyway—influencing our thoughts, our emotions, and our decision-making beneath the level of our conscious awareness.
One of the biggest problems with the idea of getting over loss is the implication, and subsequent expectation, that there is a life span to our sadness. A progressively tapering timeline where, after a certain point, the volume of our grief has reached a finite baseline—zero.
Depending on our unique losses and our personality, the acceptable lifespan might be one year, two years, three years, four. But at some point, as time marches on, we’ll turn to our sadness and ask it why it’s still sitting with us.
We’ll start to tell ourselves that it’s “been too long.” Yet, try as we might, we cannot force or sadness to leave, so we’ll do the only thing we can: turn our minds away from the sadness that lingers on in our bodies. We’ll disconnect.
We Can’t ‘Fix’ Our Sadness, and We Don’t Have To
Whilst Elizabeth Kubler-Ross may have delineated the stages of dealing with death (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), these were originally meant for those who were themselves dying, not for those who were dealing with the death or loss of another.
An unfortunate consequence of applying the concept of linear stages of grief to our human experience of loss is, again, the expectation of a finite ending; we go through the stages and we reach The End.
The less convenient truth is that grief is non-linear; there is no one pattern it’s obliged to follow.
Yet this concept of a finite resolution speaks to our society in a broader sense. Humans are exceptionally good at finding solutions. If there’s a problem, we solve it. If something’s broken, we fix it.
This way of thinking is part of what makes us great; without it, we wouldn’t have the technological advances we have. But the problem arises when we apply this mode of thinking to our human suffering.
Our bodies can be fixed; we can give someone a leg when they’ve lost one, sew a deep cut, stop an infection with antibiotics. But what of our sadness in the face of loss? How are we to ‘fix’ that?
When we’re sad, we are not broken. We are suffering, and this is different. Sadness is a normal response to the experience of loss. Yet in a culture obsessed with fixing what’s broken, the idea of “getting over it” starts to infiltrate the rawness of our experience and dilutes the edifying, tragic beauty of living with loss.
Making Space for Our Sadness
It also speaks to our discomfort with ambiguity and paradox, especially in the realm of our emotions. We cling to our separate boxes; we seek the clear delineation of “I’m over it” versus “I’m still suffering.” Such thresholds don’t exist in life, nor in love.
But rather, two opposing, seemingly contradictory emotions coexist; I am both okay, and also, I am suffering. We must give ourselves permission to be the complex and contradictory beings that we are if we want to be fully human.
Healing is not a line, but a wave. It’s organic, meandering. It doesn’t always move in one direction with one energy. But the most important thing is that it moves—if we allow it to.
When we have lost, we must learn to live side by side with our sadness. Attempting to shut it out will shut everything out. There is only one highway where emotions in the body make their way into the awareness of the mind; joy, sadness, frustration, peace—they all travel along this same road.
There are no alternate routes. Which is why when we judge our sadness and push it away, we inevitably push away our joy also. Rather than wasting our energy on the hopeless eradication of sadness, we must make a home for it. A place where it is welcome to live.
We, in the West, are not so hot at embodying the truth that our sadness has a right of its own; we can’t really control it, any more than we control our joy. Certainly, we can’t structure our life around it, but we can make a space in our life for it to coexist.
Its resting place is in the same sweet spot as our deep joy and gratitude. Sometimes I say to myself, “my sadness is a person too.” This is how I think of it. And in this thought, a respect for it arises.
Side by Side, Sadness and Love
Our belief in the notion of getting over our sadness also robs us of one of the most beautiful opportunities of healing—experiencing love by the act of remembrance.
The thing that keeps our sadness close is remembering the love we hold but cannot give to someone we’ve lost. Memories are how we relive a person. They’re a way that we honor the existence of another. They’re also how we re-live a part of ourselves and bring meaning to our life.
In our remembrance, we suffer. We feel sadness. And there is such poignant beauty in this; it’s an edifying kind of pain because it’s born from the depths of our love. To never feel sad, then, would be a kind of forgetting.
The last thing we want to do when we’ve lost someone we love is to forget them. And yet, when we buy into the belief that healing means a lack of sadness or pain, we avoid the memories of the people we’ve lost, and in our avoidance, we disconnect from our love. Because to feel this love is also to feel the pain of it.
Where does the love we hold for someone who is no longer with us, go? It lives in us. But to breathe life into it, we have to let it live in our hearts right next to the pain that love and remembrance bring.
When we do this, we soften. There is a release. We expand. We connect, both to ourselves and also to others.
Compassion can only exist between equals; when I know my suffering and let it speak to me, I can see and speak to yours.
You don’t need to overcome your sadness. That is not the measure of your healing.
The measure of healing lies in the relationship between you and your sadness. You don’t have to make friends with it, but you do have to learn how to allow it to live in you, to respect its right to be there even as you respect your wish that it weren’t.
This is no small feat. It is the most courageous and bold thing you will ever do, to live in that dichotomy. To inhabit that space.
Let this be the measure of your healing.