The Oxford English dictionary uses words like brokenhearted, morose, sorrow, unhappy, regret, melancholy, downcast, dejected, low, blue, gloomy and miserable to describe sadness. And yet it’s possible to think of sadness as a useful, even positive, emotion.
In “The Book of Joy,” coauthored with the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “We don’t really get close to others if our relationship is made up of unending hunky-doryness. It is the hard times, the painful times, the sadness and the grief that knit us together more closely.”
Recent studies found that people in a sad mood had better judgment and memory; they were more motivated, more sensitive to social norms and more generous than a happier group. Sadness may cause us to reach out to others in support and solidarity. A funeral, for example, is an event that weaves community and family together. Tears signal to others that we need comfort and kindness and that we are vulnerable and need help.
I have been doing some thinking about sadness. Sadness follows loss, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a pet, a job, a home, a good friend moving across country or our children leaving home to start their own lives. Loss may be related to departures and the realization that circumstances have changed and won’t ever be the same. A feeling of sadness may also be triggered by memories: We catch a whiff of Old Spice wafting across our path or a hint of brownies baking and we think of home. Reflection on lost opportunities, loss of dreams or life’s deep disappointments may leave us feeling sad.
We all have experienced sadness. We have felt the pangs of grief and the yearning for a different end to the story. We understand the sadness of being the ones left behind, when others go where we cannot follow.
Even though we cannot possibly know the true feelings of another, we do know what sadness is because of our own experience. We cannot say to others, “I know exactly how you feel,” because we don’t. We can empathize, however, because we access our own memories and feelings of loss. True, we filter this information through the lens of our own experience. The brain absorbs the information that people share with us and tries to find a similar experience in our stored memories that can provide context to the information. We try to make sense of what we see and hear. We access similar experiences and apply that knowledge to what is happening now. Ideally, we respond in a compassionate and selfless way to the person sharing, validating their experience because we understand something of their emotion.
Remember, too, that without love, there is no grief. Sadness and grief are reminders of the beauty of that love, now lost. To quote the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu again, “In the blinking and buzzing world of our lives, it is so easy to delete the past and move on to the next moment. To linger in the longing, the loss, the yearning is a way of feeling the rich and embroidered texture of life, the torn cloth of our world that is endlessly being ripped and rewoven.”
Those of us who volunteer for hospice care learn to not be afraid of sadness. It helps us to know the experiences that bring us sadness also have a purpose beyond what we first believe. A useful byproduct of sadness may be the ability to give comfort, and a comforting presence is perhaps the most important gift that a volunteer brings to that service.
Sadness can show us the way to a more connected life. Lean into it and be assured that life will be your best teacher.
Vicki Husted Biggs leads volunteers in hospice work and lives in Home.