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Sadness, the Healer Emotion: Understanding and Transforming Grief

Why do we feel sad? Why does it hurt, and people suffer with grief and depression? How can we heal and transform sadness? And can it have a constructive role in our lives?
Filipe Gonçalves Rocha
Filipe Gonçalves Rocha
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If you ask someone whether they enjoy feeling sadness, most people will obviously answer no. If you ask them whether they would ever intentionally want to be sad, they will probably think you are weird or crazy or foolish. Why does sadness get such a bad reputation? And most importantly, is it deserved?

One does not have to beat one’s brain out to get the answer to the first question. It is very straightforward that sadness is a negative or displeasurable emotion, which means that it brings with it a feeling of unpleasantness, discomfort or even suffering. As a matter of fact, sadness is widely and consensually recognized and classified as a negative emotion by the scientific community, mainly in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. It is also not up to much argument that we humans are not great appreciators of suffering, discomfort, and unpleasantness in general, and much rather prefer to avoid it or eliminate it – indeed, we most often put all of our efforts into doing just so. So, it comes as no surprise that we are not so fond of sadness, and that we look at it with at least the same mistrust and aversion as to making a visit to the dentist. Being sad feels bad, and there’s no denying this. But let us begin to take a closer look at the experience of sadness, how it makes us feel, and why so.

When do we feel sad?

The first question that arises is – when do we feel sad? What makes us feel down in the dumps, gloomy, melancholic, or in sorrow? What do all the situations or events that make us feel sad have in common? Think about your own experience. Did you feel sad today? What about this week? And this month? This year? Or in your whole life? Why did you experience sadness in each of those moments? What did all these situations have in common, that triggered sadness in you? You may begin to arrive at the conclusion that in all and each of these moments, you lost something important to you. It might have been something physical or emotional, trivial or profound. But the common factor in all of them is that you experienced an important loss.

Loss is the theme of sadness, which means that what triggers it in us – the common factor behind every sad moment – is when our emotional automatic appraisal evaluates an event as an important loss. We’re biologically pre-programmed to feel and respond with sadness when we take a loss. But why? Why did nature equip us with such a burdensome emotion which only seems to bring us pain and suffering, and hinders us from living happily? Yes, Nature, why?

The experience of sadness

Well, if you want nature’s answer, you have to listen to her. And that means approaching our sadness with a genuine intention to listen and understand it, from a position of compassion and equanimity. It means diving into the next step of the emotion – the experience – and trying to make sense of it. What is it that you want, Sadness? Why do you exist in me? And why do you make me feel this way? What are you trying to tell me? If you listen carefully and lovingly, it will speak. And you will be surprised by the answer.

Before, I believed that what hurt was the sadness itself – the experience of grief was a bad one, it made me feel pain, it made me suffer, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But when I allowed myself to truly listen to it, to look inward and understand its message, my view changed entirely, and now we’re best friends. I discovered that what hurt was not sadness – the emotion – but rather the situation that caused it. Or, more accurately, it was thinking about the loss with aversion to it and attachment to what was lost (and isn’t that what always makes us suffer?). Of course, thinking about something bad to ourselves hurts – that’s automatic in us, and it tells us to avoid it to happen. But in the case of sadness, that something has already happened, whether we want it to or not, and we can no longer avoid it. So, it brings us no good to think and hurt on it. What we can and need to do, is to try and remediate or improve the situation, and, if not possible, at least to find a way to accept it and live with it the most meaningfully and constructively we can. And that, as I found, is where sadness comes in.

When I was able to separate the sadness from the pain, and let it speak to me, I encountered it as a part of me kindly telling me I had lost something important, and that I needed to deal with it, to reconnect with myself and my values, to heal. Of course, to do that it had to make me think about my situation, and that was what hurt. And this is the reason why I think we look at sadness as a negative and unpleasant emotion – because it brings our attention to something that hurts us. This, of course, makes us want to avoid or suppress it. Yet sadness is not what hurts, but rather that which wants to heal the pain. It wants to help us comprehend and overcome our loss, to accept it and grow from it, and to be well and no longer hurt. Sadness is the healer, and we mistakenly take it as the enemy. And by fleeing from it or pushing it away, we inadvertently are sabotaging ourselves and our own happiness, love, and connection. We may be able to push it away, kick it into the darkest corner of our minds, and never let it see the sun again; but we will never heal and grow from it.

I like to compare this to as if a patient came to my office where I had to tell them they had an illness, and tried to give the necessary medication to cure or improve it. They would be so focused on me delivering them those bad news that they would feel that I was the cause of their suffering, would think I’m a horrible doctor who should be punished and arrested, and would walk away without taking my medication. This is what we do with sadness: we are so focused on it making us think about things which hurt us, that we don’t listen to it and we believe it is the cause of our suffering, that it is bad, and should be put behind bars forever. But sadness is there to help us heal, grow, and reconnect. We just need to let it do its job.

The Healer Emotion

Sadness is the emotion of healing – it’s function is to help overcome a loss – and we can further corroborate that by looking into the third and final step of the emotional episode – behavior. What is it that sadness makes us do, or want to do? What wills and desires arise in us when we feel dismayed or sorrowful? I think it is true for all of us that when we feel down we don’t really have the will to do much anything at all, and we want to be alone by ourselves in a calm and quiet place, to reflect on and mourn our loss. This is our sadness preparing us to settle down and take the time to confront reality, reconnect with ourselves, and heal and grow. We may also cry, which is a natural physiologic response of our body to relieve stress. At last, when we feel sad we also look to be with our friends and loved ones, to get our pain off our chest, and to feel their reassurance and support. Friends and loved ones are a source of aid when we go through bad moments, and their presence and love remind us of the good things we have in life. This too is sadness at its best of helping us overcome and heal from a loss.

Sadness brings us an important message that we need to slow down or fully stop to reconnect with and take care of ourselves; to acknowledge our loss, mourn it, and allow it to be part of reality. It creates a perfect mindset and opportunity to rebalance and recenter our mind and spirit, and to readjust ourselves to the new reality, which is essential for us to be able to live in it in a functional and most constructive possible way. Otherwise, we will live disconnected from ourselves and reality, and hold inside unprocessed feelings which will always be a cause of emotional instability and apparently idiopathic suffering and confusion. Lastly, it motivates us to seek comfort and consolation in the friendship and care of others, who will always be a source of aid, safety and reassurance. Without a doubt, Sadness is the Healer Emotion.

When sadness hurts instead of healing

But then, you might ask, why are there so many people suffering in their grief, their misery, their despair? Why are there people suffering depressions, which can go from sapping the joy out of them, to completeley devastating them and even making them end their lives? These are questions that cannot be dennied or ignored, and are very important and rightful to be asked.

Sadness, like every other emotion, has a function important to us, and it is a beautiful one. But, like every other emotion too, it can work badly. Just like the growth and repair systems of our own body’s cells can grow out of control and become cancers, so too an emotion can become dysfunctional and no longer serve its purpose, rather becoming destructive and harmful to ourselves.

In the case of sadness, that which most easily comes to mind is depression. But depression is already considered a disease, and its depth and complexity requires and deserves a dedicated analysis and understanding (which we are working at for a future post). But we need not go so far to find cases of destructive sadness in our daily lives, true for most of us. Don’t you ever find yourself dwelling on something bad of the past, chewing it over and over, with feelings of self-pity or guilt and shame, crushing your self-esteem, or just thinking of how bad and evil the world is? Is this ever constructive, does this ever bring you or anyone any good, any healing? I believe not, but this happens to most of us with relative frequency, and it is a clear example of destructive sadness.

This usually happens when, instead of making us face, deal with, and recover from our loss, sadness just makes us think about it over and over, without coming to any constructive resolution or insight. We get caught in the pattern known as rumination, where we are constantly rethinking and reliving the situation, grasping onto our pain and retriggering our sorrow without getting anywhere. And while we do this we are only keeping ourselves down, disconnecting from reality, and closing ourselves off to joy and love. If this is maintained and even intensified over time, we may turn into a melancholic and pessimistic person. And if we let it spiral down further, we may sink into the dark pit of depression.

But why is it making us do that? Why is sadness not doing its function – helping us heal? Why is it not constructive here, not healing, instead hurting us and our happiness? And what can we do about it? How can we heal ourselves and transform our pain into growth and well-being? Now that you better understand this emotion, maybe you can begin to evision how – what do you think?

Healing Sadness

If sadness isn’t fulfilling its mission, it may be that we are not allowing it to. If you begin paying attention, you will discover that most of the times sadness becomes destructive, we are not truly listening to its message, not connecting with its spirit. Rather, we are most often feeling aversion towards it, a desire to suppress it or avoid it.

Now, this brings us a problem. Emotions are stubborn. They refuse to be ignored or pushed away, and will keep coming back to get our attention. Heck, they’re made to save our lives, so they better do that. But in this case, this is our curse.

Because when we’re pushing away an emotion and it keeps coming back to us, we are neither getting rid of it nor working with and transforming it. Instead, sadness just keeps redirecting our attention to our pain, and then we shy away from it, and then we go back, and then we push it back, and we enter this cycle of constantly reliving the situation and retriggering the pain, without getting anywhere.

Then, because we can’t get rid of it, we begin ruminating on our sorrow. Instead of seeking to heal and overcome it, we focus only on the loss, the hurting, how it is all so bad, and how unfortunate and miserable we are; we become paralyzed in our own endless cycle of self-pity, and we don’t give heed to the kind and compassionate message that sadness is trying to give us.

This alone is the main reason behind most cases of destructive sadness, and to transform it all we need to do is to stop for a while, to connect with ourselves, listen to our sadness and its message, and for once do what it asks us to: heal ourselves.

Notice must be given, however, that this may not be the easiest task. It requires us to approach our pain and hurt, and as long as we feel aversion to it, it will be a daunting job and a futile effort. In order to do this, we need to be able to attend to our pain without reactivity or judgement, but from a neutral position of relaxation and equanimity. For this, it is essential to develop the skill of voluntarily directing the flow and quality of our attention, otherwise known as mindfulness. We also need to change our mindset from ‘fleeing from the pain’ to ‘healing the pain’, which really means cultivating a quality which is immeasurably important but incredibly missing nowadays: self-compassion (which is radically distinct from self-pity).

Mindfulness and Self-Compassion are therefore the two nuclear mental skills which can allow us to approach our sadness and begin to heal it, and thus developping them is the first step for us to be able to do it (meditation is our best tool to develop and cultivate these qualities). As we approach and connect with our sadness with mindfulness and self-compassion, it will begin to open like a flower.

When we give it the needed space and care, it will finally reveal its message to us – a message about something important to us that we lost. And what it says is very clear: this that you lost – this person, this relationship, this thing, this expectation – was important, was meaningful to you. And now you have to adapt to the new reality, without this thing. But – and this part is crucial – you shouldn’t stop caring about it, stop valuing it, or disconnect from this value. No, you should mourn it, and instead reiforce it and celebrate it, make it stronger in your life, live more accordingly to it, and never again take it for granted.

The Blue Healer

Sadness is our reminder that everything in life will pass. Our things, our positions, our relationships, our friends and family, our moments and opportunities, our physical and mental qualities, and ultimately our life, are not forever – they will decay and end. Without this reminder, we will live distracted, as if our lives are eternal and others will be here forever, and we will keep searching for things that have no intrinsic value and doing things which bring no meaning.

This is not to say that we must feel sadness in order to give value to life, others, and things, and that without it we can’t. I don’t believe that we need to know bad to value good. We can and should value all of these before we feel sadness, and in fact we only feel sadness about something because we already valued it. Sadness just reminds us of what we value, what truly matters to us and is important in life; it makes us reconnect to our values when we are distracted, living life as if they will be here forever; and above all, it is here for us when we lose that which is most dear to our hearts, and we need to be conforted and healed.

Because this life and this world and all things in it are impermanent, volatile, and mostly out of our control; and the only truth that is unchaning is that everything changes, and ends; and if we ever value something in this life – then we’re bound to lose it. And because losing what we cherish hurts, we may feel compelled to stop valuing things, to create a safety distance between us and reality, and to hold ourselves back from ever truly loving. But this alternative is not really a good one, as it spells living a meaningless, superficial life, void of any real love and true joy. If we want to live a meaningful, loving, and connected life, then we need to be able to deal with the inevitability of loss, to heal its pain, and to let the wisdom of the impermanece of the things, the people, and the moments we love make us treasure them even more and feel how precious they truly are. And that is in heart and soul the profound and life-changing role of sadness in our lives.

So, it’s not that we need sadness to value goodness, beauty, life, friendship, and love. Rather, it’s that if we do value them, we need sadness.

It is sadness that reminds us of what is really important, what really matters in life, and makes us desire to live more accordingly. Even more than that, it is what allows us to hold things dear and live a life with meaning. It helps us recognize the ever-changing and fragile nature of life and everything in it, and instead of becoming upset or morose about it, making sure to seize and appreciate all the precious moments with the people, things, and places we love.

And the more we push it away, the more we may be distancing ourselves from what truly matters, what gives meaning to our lives, and the more we will live a void and bleak existence. As Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “the way we protect ourselves from loss may be the way in which we distance ourselves from life.” So don’t protect yourself from what you hold dear, and draw on the power of your sadness to cultivate this Wisdom of Impermanence and live a life filled with love and beauty.

So, yes! If you asked me whether I would ever intentionally want to be sad, I’d say – of course! I need sadness in my life to help me heal when I take a loss, and allow me to continue loving; to remind me of what’s important to me when I forget; and to make me see that I only have this unique and precious life, and to give me the motivation and the courage to live it fully and as meaningfully as I can.

Wanting to feel sadness doesn’t mean wanting bad things to happen. It means having the wisdom of understanding that bad things will happen, and wanting to be able to heal and grow from them. My sadness is what allows me to do this, and this is why I’m grateful for having it in my life. And I hope now you are beginning to feel the same way about yours.

I want to leave you with a beautiful and touching song by an inspiring band, which poetically hits at just the message I have tried to pass to you in this article. Blue Healer, by Birdtalker.

Verse 1
Enter sadness, with your rain boots in blue
Since I can remember I’ve been runnin’ from you
But this time you sat your ass down with no intent to move
You ain’t no Blue Healer
Verse 2
Well the longer that you sit here lookin’ into my eyes
The shock of your arrival begins to subside
And as I drop my defenses you start to crack a smile
Are you a Blue Healer?

Chorus 1
Well I’ve been proud and
Lookin’ in a mirror that’s clouded
Smoke that’s been keeping me shrouded
Believing I’m fine

But you wipe clean
All of these illusions that ain’t me
Now you’ve got me lookin’ and I hate me
Where is my spine?

Verse 3
Peace, you told me, I’m only here to reveal
Where you’ve been stuck and where you’re going if you’re lookin’ to heal
But you’ve gotta drop these vain addictions and hang on to what’s real
You Healer
Bridge
I want to welcome every shadow
Instead of taking every one to battle
I’m climbing back up into the saddle
I want to welcome every shadow
Instead of taking every one to battle
I’m climbing back up into the saddle

Chorus 2
And now I stand tall
Used to think my sorrow was a brick wall
Made me want to curl up in a tight ball
Self-pity dealer

But there’s a gate here
You can only find it if you wait here
Now I’m walkin’ through it with my gaze clear
Me and the Blue Healer.

Verse 1
Enter sadness, with your rain boots in blue
Since I can remember I’ve been runnin’ from you
But this time you sat your ass down with no intent to move
You ain’t no Blue Healer

Verse 2
Well the longer that you sit here lookin’ into my eyes
The shock of your arrival begins to subside
And as I drop my defenses you start to crack a smile
Are you a Blue Healer?

Chorus 1
Well I’ve been proud and
Lookin’ in a mirror that’s clouded
Smoke that’s been keeping me shrouded
Believing I’m fine

But you wipe clean
All of these illusions that ain’t me
Now you’ve got me lookin’ and I hate me
Where is my spine?

Verse 3
Peace, you told me, I’m only here to reveal
Where you’ve been stuck and where you’re going if you’re lookin’ to heal
But you’ve gotta drop these vain addictions and hang on to what’s real
You Healer

Bridge
I want to welcome every shadow
Instead of taking every one to battle
I’m climbing back up into the saddle

I want to welcome every shadow
Instead of taking every one to battle
I’m climbing back up into the saddle

Chorus 2
And now I stand tall
Used to think my sorrow was a brick wall
Made me want to curl up in a tight ball
Self-pity dealer

But there’s a gate here
You can only find it if you wait here
Now I’m walkin’ through it with my gaze clear
Me and the Blue Healer.

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2 Responses

  1. Great article, been through some rough times last year and still fighting the demons inside from time to time and I can say without a doubt that you are so right, we should not hide from sadness or underestimated; like everything that happens in our lives it has a meaning and if we look mindfulness at it I think it can guide us to the light.
    All the best. One love.

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