There is a room in your heart where sadness dwells. Each story of sadness lives there like a stagnant, frozen particle of light waiting for you to see it, to hold it, to wrap it in a blanket and bring it tea. When you visit your grief place with love, the particles of light start to shimmer and move – dance, even – for all things, even our pain, especially our pain, only want to be seen and loved.
We can live our lives ignoring this grief place, until we can no longer ignore it; until anxiety or intrusive thoughts or physical health jut up with such force that we must pay attention. The frozen particles start to move now with a new desire for attention, and hopefully, if we’re guided skillfully, we see that the anxiety is a messenger that can bring us into direct contact with our pain, a crucial meeting, perhaps for the first time. It’s often during transitions that inhabitants of the grief place speak more loudly and move with greater intensity. It’s then, when we’re broken down and broken open, trembling in the liminal zone when the thing we’ve known is no longer and the place we’re growing into is not yet, that the pain in our chest pounds us awake in the middle of the night, begging to be known and seen.
This pain has been with you for a long time. There may be pain from a time before you had words or clear memories: the pain of the newborn being ripped from the womb; the pain of a baby trying to latch or the breast taken away too early; the pain of a three year old being left before she was ready to be left. The pain of not being held when you needed to be held, or being held too much or in the wrong way. The pain of teasing and taunting and bullying. The pain of first love. The pain of a broken heart.
There may likely be sadness in your grief place that is yours but isn’t yours: the intergenerational, unlived pain of those who lived before you who didn’t bring warm blankets and mugs of tea to their grief. Jung wrote that we live the unlived lives of our parents and grandparents, that their pain and fear and anxiety that didn’t receive attention funnels down through the generations and lands in the heart of the most sensitive child. That child is probably you. We can receive this as a burden, or we can hear it as the gift of being able to bring consciousness to pain and witnessing the miracles and openings that result from that loving attention. If every dancing particle of pain can be transformed into poetry or art or tears or a growing spot of compassion for others, then every particle is a gift.
As we tumble through a time of loss or transition – a loss of a loved one, a new marriage, a baby, a move, 20s, the holidays – memory synapses are ignited that trigger other, older losses. These losses may not scream out in the middle of the night; often they appear more quietly: a vague memory, a sense of sadness. You don’t have to know why you’re sad to attend to the sadness. The attachment to knowing “why” is one of our most ingenious mental traps to prevent us from feeling the pain. You’re allowed to just feel sad without knowing the story. The paradox of pain is that when you allow yourself to feel it for no reason, the reason often bubbles to the surface. Pain lives in the unconscious layers of the body, the place without words, but when you bring it to the surface it touches the left-hemisphere and the words sometimes appear. But sometimes they don’t. And it really doesn’t matter either way.
We carry many old beliefs about pain. We believe we can’t handle it. We believe if we open that door the flood of grief will never stop. We believe it will overwhelm us. These are preverbal beliefs born of early experiences where we were left to cry alone and the bigness of the pain in such a tiny, soft body felt as if it would kill us. The beliefs were true then – big pain in a small, lonely body is too much to handle and the only choice is to dissociate and shut down – but it’s not true now. You can handle your pain. I promise you can. I’ve seen clients as shut down as possible open to their pain and what happens in the thawing out is the most glorious sight you can imagine. They don’t die. They come alive. They don’t freeze in a fight-or-flight response; they open completely like a flower in spring.
Oh, how we fear grief. But there is really nothing to fear. When my sons cry so hard they lose their breath and choke and I can see them trying to get away from their pain I hold them close and whisper in their ear, “It’s okay to feel sad. It’s only energy. It will pass through you.” We only need to move toward to it with our breath and our attention, to carve out time and space to invite the grief to surface, and it will come. Many people move at a steady, serious pace and then wonder why they have trouble connecting to their grief, or can only do so during a therapy session. Sadness is a vulnerable, shy animal. It’s a child that isn’t going to tell you about her pain while you’re frantically getting ready for work in the morning. The pain particles require that we slow down in order to hear their sobs and catch their tears. They require a slowness of living that is almost lost in today’s breakneck pace.
But when you do stop and make time and open to another rhythm, you can enter the grief place. And then particles thaw out. And then they shimmer with light. And we realize then, when we’ve cried a small river of wordless tears, when we wake up the next morning and feel a ray of sun in the soul after the storm, when there’s a lightness to our step, that the grief place is also the joy place. We know then that grief and joy live in the same chamber of the heart. We know it is not something to be feared, but that it is the pathway to the peace we all seek.