I keep waking up to a gnawing sadness in my spirit these days. Perhaps you know what I mean?

The sadness doesn’t surprise me with all that’s going on in the world today: the double-edged sword of a pandemic that some refuse to respect; a rising uncomfortable consciousness about racial injustice; a growth and boldness of white supremacist fanatics; politicization of widespread social unrest; recent executions; social restrictions and isolation; hurricanes; fires; disdain for democracy.

I don’t like looking at that list or typing it, but it certainly makes clear the source of emotional pain. This list also points to why we need some healthy ways to deal with our sadness since most of these are not going away soon.

Why is it an essential human response?

Did you know that psychologists report sadness is essential to our well-being and survival? Well, it is. Sadness is a natural human response to pain or loss of any kind. It tells us some event or inner experience hurt us.

Sadness lets us know we need to grieve and to seek out those who love and support us. Except we can’t always be with those who love us these days. I see your eye roll. I’m with you. There’s hope below as you work through your hurting heart.

Let’s take a look at the connection between sadness and grieving, then explore five healthy ways to deal with this emotional pain.

Parallels with C. S. Lewis’ book, A Grief Observed

Take a look with me at a passage from C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. Search for parallels between how you’re feeling these days and Lewis’s words as he reflected on the experience of grieving the death of his wife, Joy who died at the age of forty-five in 1960.

And then one or other dies. And we think of this as love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid-career or a flower with its head unluckily snapped off—something truncated and therefore, lacking its due shape. I wonder. If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings) then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follws courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases …

We are ‘taken out of ourselves’ by the loved one while she is here. Then comes the tragic figure of the dance in which we must learn to be still taken out of ourselves though the bodily presence is withdrawn, to love the very Her, and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrow, or our relief from sorrow, or our own love.

from A Grief Observed.
Sadness dissipates like fog and reveals joy like fresh dew on morning grass.

If you have lost a loved one, I hope these words bring some hope or salve to you and that God grants you consolation and peace.

Our loss leads to sadness and grief.

Your life as you knew it died with this pandemic. It unraveled and got tied in knots all at the same time. C. S. Lewis’s image of a flower with its bloom snapped off feels like a worthy description for our quarantine brains and lives.

Lewis describes his grief life as truncated. I like that word. It speaks to my sadness. It speaks to the lost shape of our lives.

If bereavement is a “universal and integral part of our experience of love,” as Lewis proposes, then sadness is an integral part of U.S. life with a pandemic, amoral leadership, and cultural upheaval.

While we live with a heaviness of our spirit, our emotions can morph like clouds. When they do, it’s important to remind ourselves we are not helpless. We are not victims of our thoughts. Sadness is not weakness.

We can self-sabotage or self-govern when dealing with our feelings. I choose to self-govern as my daily practice and encourage you to do the same.

Healthy ways of addressing our emotions help us through emotional pain.

Five Healthy Ways to Deal with Sadness and Emotional Pain

Give yourself support in your sadness and grieving.

First, ask God for help.

  • Our sacred traditions help us live with the tensions of this heavy time. Your church may be closed. Regardless, soak daily in the living Word of God [listen to “First Fruits,” my Facebook Live M-F broadcast on the day’s Mass readings].
  • Pray daily, both out loud and in silence. Perhaps you’re ready to try a new way of praying. You might try a contemplative method called centering prayer. Check out Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart (available at Alibris Books for $1.99) and Cynthia Bourgeault’s books on centering prayer. She offers this explanation to learn more about this extraordinary prayer that is growing worldwide.
  • Centering Prayer has a Christian foundation going back hundreds of years. The Cloud of Unknowing, offered at Abe Books for $2.50, is the book on which the centering prayer method was based.

“Prayer is not a request for God’s favours…Genuine prayer is based on recognizing the Origin of all that exists, and opening ourselves to it.”

~Cynthia Bourgeault

Second, trust your sadness.

  • Psychologists teach us we have two “brains:” one is emotional and one is thinking. Our thoughts tells us we’re sad, but we aren’t always sure how to connect to the emotion. Our instinct is sometimes to push it away and that’s understandable. When we trust the sadness is there to help us, we can own it and honor it.
  • Sit with it and trust its ability to guide you through what hurts. You’ll come through it feeling stronger.
  • Sadness lets us move forward when we give ourselves time to process it. Do this and remarkably, sadness dissipates like fog and reveals joy like fresh dew on morning grass.

Third, seek those who love and support you.

  • Some of us live alone and it’s not always easy to be with those who love us. When we’re full of pain, we don’t always think clearly and may have a hard time recalling who cares about us.
  • Getting a hug is risky outside of family members, but if you have a pet, or a neighbor whose pet likes you, their unconditional love does wonders.
  • It helps us to have our feelings understood, so reach out by phone or video or Marco Polo (a free app that turns your phone into a one-way video walkie-talkie). Tell someone trustworthy how you’re feeling.
  • When you cannot be with those you love and support you, look for someone you can console instead. Doing a good deed or being a good listener takes the focus off our pain and turns it into productive action.

Fourth, use affirmations.

  • Affirmations help when you’re stuck and I was most definitely stuck lately. Immobilized, to be specific. Join my email list and receive a list of affirmations.
  • To set an affirmation, sit down and decide what it is you’re feeling. You may have to go through a few descriptions until you hit on the core truth at the bottom of your feelings. Then write an affirmation to counter those states of mind. Here are the feelings I wrote down: unfocused, in need of “my people,” and sad. I set a new affirmation to directly address those: I am focused, loved and joyful.

At first, it may feel like you’re lying to yourself when you repeat your affirmation. You’re not lying. You’re choosing a truth you want to live by. Repeat it often to yourself. You don’t even have to believe it at first. Your unconscious does not know the difference and will surprise you at how responsive it is.

A child sleeps on grandma's chest
with one of my grandsons

Fifth, practice Guard of the Heart

  • Guard of the Heart is a spiritual tool of attention to help us preserve our peace of heart. By putting our attention at the entrance of our heart, we notice when we don’t feel at peace and what kinds of peole, places, and things endanger this well-being.
  • This is a practice similar to how parents protect their little ones from harmful influences, by making careful choices of who their children play with, what TV and videos they watch, and what foods they eat.

Guard of the heart prevents easy entry of any disturbance into our heart. It requires us to take control of what goes in and what the heart has to ‘feel.’

Mary Margaret Funk, — Tools Matter For Practicing the Spiritual Life
  • Guard of the heart is a practice that follows a resolution about something. When my tender mother’s heart couldn’t take any more negative energy, I used this practice.
  • Resolve to guard your heart from outside forces that disturb it.
  • “When we want strongly to follow through with our resolution we should guard our heart from doubt and from counter experiences that move us away from our resolve.”
  • Your heart provides your innermost experience of being with God so it is important to guard it. When your emotions are frail or your spirit tender, guarding your heart protects your well-being and relationship with God and others.
  • When you feel sadness, guard your heart from music, songs or movies that feed that sadness. I had a Pandora channel on the other day and suddenly found myself almost weepy. I realized the music triggered the emotion and changed the channel.
  • Your heart will be full of strength and commitment when you protect it and guard it.

Honor your feelings of sadness or grief as part of your life journey

A weeping willow beside a lake. A classic image of sadness.

The spiritual journey can never be a privatized set of practices,

because whenever you start the spiritual journey,

the whole of humanity, and perhaps creation,

goes along and shares the journey with you.”  

Thomas Keating, www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourse  Forgiveness – Growth in Love

It’s important to honor your feelings. It might be helpful to think of your sadness in terms of grief. Grieving is an individual process of learning to live with loss.

In college, I took a course on Death and Dying in which I learned the five stages of grief, as identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, not necessarily in that order. Kübler-Ross says not everyone experiences all five, but at least two are part of all grieving. This year in this pandemic, I moved through four of these stages.

You may experience several stages in a “roller coaster” effect—switching between two or more stages, returning to one or more several times before working through it. If one of the stages comes back, give it space.

Be gentle with yourself.

Sadness and grief are natural parts of living. You will get through it and get to the acceptance stage. Be prepared to be tired. Grief work is fatiguing and remember, it’s not always about someone dying.

We may increase our compassion for one another’s emotions and spirits if we think that all of us are grieving in some way. Like the MADD group (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) used their grief for good, we can turn our sadness into greater compassion and consciousness for how we all carry invisible pain. May God help us all.

Some people don’t handle emotions well. Pray for them as I pray for you.

When sadness fills your heart, go where it leads
Photo by lorenkerns

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