In 1981, my father asked me to meet him at Baskin Robbins ice cream store, near my mom’s apartment where I lived. He bought me ice cream, probably a Banana Royale with Pistachio ice cream, hot fudge, and bananas and whip cream. As I ate my ice cream, my dad told me he had cancer. I was on 18 years old and did not expect such adult news. A few days later, I was playing football with friends. I began talking with my friend Chris about traveling to Los Angeles to see the Monday Night game preseason game between New England and Los Angeles Rams. By 7:00pm, we were at the airport and waiting for our airplane. We checked into the Newporter, a resort, in Orange County. I let my sadness carry me all the way to Southern California. I remembered in the middle of the trip that my father was having exploratory surgery. I called home and heard he was ok.
When the doctors at Kaiser Permanente hospital surgically opened up my father’s body, they could see that cancer was riddled throughout his lymphatic system. His doctors simply closed up the incision and told my father that had six months to live. I cherish the time I had to spend with him until his death on June 10, 1984.
I had four people close to me die from April 1984 until August 1985. My response to all of these tragedies was to avoid my sadness. Later in my life, I had to learn to do the work of grief. Sadness has an important function in the grieving process. Grief turns us inward. We can lose energy, concentration, experience sleep changes, lose motivation and experience changes in our appetite.
Grief not only has to do with death, but also with the ending of relationships of all kinds, including marriages. Daniel Goleman writes, “The main purpose for sadness is to help adjust to a significant loss, such as the death of someone close or a major disappointment. Sadness brings a drop in energy and enthusiasm for life’s activities, particular diversions and pleasures, and, as it deepens and approaches depression, slows the body’s metabolism. This loss of energy may well have kept saddened – and vulnerable – early humans close to home, where they were safer.”
Whenever you love someone and you are no longer able to spend time with them, you naturally feel pain. Yet there is a difference between the pain as a result of loss and the suffering as a result of false beliefs and avoidance. David Kessler said, “One of the biggest problems is that you might try to push aside or ignore your feelings. You judge them as too little or too much. You carry a lot of bottled up emotions, and anger is often one that is suppressed. In order for it to heal, however, it must be released. We’re not speaking only about anger associated with death, but about anytime we feel anger. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the renowned grief expert who identified the Five Stages of Grief, said we could feel anger, let it pass through us, and be done with it in a few minutes. She went on to say that any anger we feel over 15 minutes is old anger.”
What is the journey to healthy grief and eventually to resolution? I have learned to lean into the sadness as well as other emotions. By acknowledging and consciously experiencing the sadness, we can let go. Our loses need to be integrated psychologically. Grief enables us to update our consciousness with reality. The current loss reveals other losses – not integrated – that lie beneath. Grieving can take time. Eventually, we can remember the wonderful parts of the past and not experience the pain. Janet Childs who works for the Centre for Living with Dying, in Santa Clara, California, USA, said “grieving is like the ocean tides. The grief can come and go. Some days can be harder than others.”
We all experience grief differently. When I am grieving, it really helps to let myself be. I like to pay attention to my body and follow my inclinations. When I am able to minimize my obligations, I am free to follow my inclinations. As long as it is not self-destructive, I indulge myself. If I am tired, I sleep. If I am hungry, I eat. If I just stare off into space, it is ok.
Having empathic and accepting people to listen are invaluable. It helps to have a few good listeners – too not overburden any one person.
During a loss, We may discover that our thoughts are negative. When we break up a relationship, we may think “I will always be alone.” “Why do bad things always happen to me?”
Sadness can be subtle. It is very important and its power as well as the power of all other emotions should not be underestimated. Daniel Goleman writes that sadness is “grief, sorrow, cheerlessness, gloom, melancholy, self-pity, loneliness, dejection, despair, and when pathological, severe depression.” Please watch this video by Judith Peterson on using drawing for healing: