I feel sad, and I don’t want to feel sad. My husband and I have begun a conversation about moving from the neighborhood and the town where we have spent decades. Rather than feeling sad, I want to focus my emotional energy on the joys of new opportunities and new adventures. I don’t enjoy the process of saying goodbye to walks with my neighbor, or deep conversation over a lingering cup of tea with a writer-friend, or a decades-long tradition of a monthly-ish dinner out with a small group of friends.
But I’ve learned that if I run from the sadness attached to the grief of loss, even anticipatory grief, I’ll find myself twisted up in anger, resentment, frustration, and even depression. I know that I have to face into grief. Sigh!
So in this season of transition that could last for some time, I have given myself permission to say aloud, “I feel sad.”
I like the distinction some psychologists make between saying, “I AM sad.” and “I FEEL sad.” Sadness does NOT need to define my entire being: “I am sad.” Instead, it can represent a momentary emotion: “I feel sad.” I purposely use the phrase, “I feel sad.”
Even as I feel sad about the transition ahead, I also want to prepare to embrace grief’s good work. I have lived long enough to experience multiple, deep losses, all of which taught me that the sadness associated with grief does good work in my heart.
Grieving Creates Space
In anticipation of our move, I recently emptied the closet shelves in my office. I had them crammed with books—some of my college textbooks, some King Arthur books my mom liked, some Master Plot books my professor father underlined in red ink, some paperback books written by my Redbud Writers Guild friends. As I boxed up the books, I felt sad. These books have surrounded me in this space for many years, acting as friends and reminding me of loved ones, including my deceased parents.
And yet, I can’t tell you how many times I have returned to my newly cleaned office to fling open that closet door and gaze at the empty shelves. Something about them holds promise.
These empty shelves serve as a visual reminder to me that by clearing this space in my closet I have also cleared space in my life. My clearing and boxing of these books says to God, “I will go. I won’t live in the fear of the unknown. I will take a risk.”
Grief involves letting go of someone or something—a person, a job, a neighborhood, a pet, a dream, even books. I’ve found that if I embrace the process, tears and all, I eventually end up with space in my life for a next step or a next relationship. If I don’t let myself grieve, I end up with a crowded life, much like my crowded closet. And then I miss opportunities.
Grieving Builds Muscles of Resilience
Certainly the grief of moving cannot compare to the grief of losing a spouse or a child or a sibling or a dear friend. I have a choice in this process of moving. None of us has a choice in how or when we lose loved ones.
That grief of losing a loved one feels so intense. When my mom died, I sometimes felt my heart literally hurt. I wandered in a fog for many months and found myself crying at random times, such as when I would hear a song on the radio or even see a tender TV commercial.
Now, 15 years later, I can think of my mom without my heart hurting. I can look at a picture of the two of us and smile, not wince.
Somewhere in all that sadness, it seems I built up some muscles of resilience. By walking into grief, rather than trying to skirt it, I eventually came through it. I learned to function in a new reality without my mom.
Running (or steadily walking away) from sorrow or sadness sounds like a way to preserve and protect our hearts, but instead it hardens our hearts. That, in turn, keeps us from the joy of future relationships as we forget how to exercise the muscle of our hearts.
When we embrace grief and allow it to do its good work within us, we become more resilient people. We begin to realize that we can navigate hard stuff and great loss and still get up every morning. Eventually, we even begin to realize that our hearts have grown. And they have stayed soft and open.
Grieving Opens the Door
No one can fully understand how anyone else truly feels about losing a spouse, a child, a sibling, or a dear friend. Some people try: “Tell me how you feel about missing your mom.”
Even I, lover of words, can never succinctly and accurately describe the process of grieving. It has so many twists and turns. And it varies from person to person. My description of losing my mom might resonate with some but certainly not with everyone.
When I tried to return to my real life after Mom died, I mostly gave up trying to explain my grief. It just took too much energy.
But I discovered that I did have one stalwart confidant: God. When my world felt dark and overwhelming and filled with fog, I knew I could sit and weep and just let God hear it all—often out loud. I knew from reading the Psalms dozens of times that God could handle raw emotions. He certainly handled David’s emotions.
Day and night I have only tears for food,
while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”
My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!
Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
Psalm 42:3-5, New Living Translation
Like David, as I talked and prayed and cried out to God, I began, bit by bit, to let go of my pain and sadness. And I began to remember and feel God’s love and strength.
Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!
Psalm 42:11, NLT
The whole grieving process takes time. I’ve heard people say, “It has been six months since you lost your loved one, you should be feeling better now.”
So . . . the sadness of grief expires in six months?
In my experience and in the experience of those I know who have loved and lost, grief comes and goes at random times and for random lengths of times. But by facing into it and hanging on to God during the tumultuous, unpredictable journey, we will one day look back and see the good work grief has done within us. And we will begin to recognize other emotions floating into our hearts, perhaps even joy and hope.
I do feel sad about the loss ahead. And yet I also feel a great sense of joyful anticipation as I know from past experience that God will see and hear my sorrow and meet me in it and use it to continue to shape and grow my heart even as he opens new doors and beckons me to walk through them.