On feeling okay about feeling bad

This is something I wrote about a year ago, after a bombardment of really upsetting stories in the news cycle, when I felt like a lot of us were struggling to feel okay. 

Since the news cycle hasn't gotten more cheerful, and since, in fact, I've been hearing from a lot of people that they feel overwhelmed and hopeless about the general state of things, I thought I would put it out there again. I hope it's helpful to you and yours. 

(October 16, 2015)

So Kamal has been asking me where his “other” grandparents are: along with learning the sounds letters make and the concept of gender, preschool has taught him that some kids have two sets of grandparents. He knows he has grandparents in Pennsylvania, but where are the other ones?

My father met Kamal when Kamal was 7 weeks old, and again when he was just over a year and beginning to walk. He sent him a teddy bear Kamal named Daddy Bear and a talking stuffed dog Kamal dubbed Puppy. When Kamal was about a year and a half old, my father died in a hospice in Florida. My mother died 18 years ago, when I was 19, of a swiftly-moving cancer. So Kamal’s questions are hard to answer straightforwardly, but I’m trying my best.

I tell him that I don’t know for sure where they are, but they have died, which means they don’t live anywhere right now. I tell them that different people believe different things about what happens to people after they die, and then I try and tell him a little about some of those things. Then he tells me his theories, and asks more questions. We’ve had some really wonderful conversations.

But of course I am sad, thinking about the way my mother would have adored her sweet, smart little grandson; the way my father would have swelled with pride over every one of Kamal’s accomplishments. And when Kamal sighs, “I miss them,” I can only believe him, and say, “I know, baby. Me too.”

And so these last few days, I’ve been moving along through a rusty cloud of old, achy grief, remembering things, regretting things, wishing futile wishes. It doesn’t fall anywhere under the #healthyhedonism tag. It does not feel good.

And yet–and yet. And yet I think always about a quote I found years ago, when I’d lost my first pregnancy and could not even believe how sad I was.  The American poet and philosopher George Santayana wrote: “To be interested in the changing of the seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with the spring.”

This isn’t about looking for the silver lining in a shitty situation. It’s not about being an optimist, or having a positive attitude. It’s about being present in every single moment that you possibly can, about living your whole life with your whole self when you are able and forgiving yourself when you’re not. It’s about learning from your pain as willingly as you learn from your joy. It’s about recognizing the tremendous privilege of knowing a wide spectrum of emotion.

Seeking joy in every moment isn’t healthful. It’s not the human condition. Avoiding sorrow isn’t possible; it comes for each of us. Days like these last few, days when sorrow finds me, I do my best to be interested in it. I try to breathe it in and taste it. I try not to hide it from Kamal, because no matter how much I want this not to be true, sorrow will come for him sometimes, as well. I want to model for him ways to move forward with sorrow, to avoid getting stuck in it, to show him it’s possible to live with sorrow and still have a joyful life.

There is gratitude for this sorrow: it’s deepened my empathy and helped me reach others who are feeling stuck. In many ways, it’s defined the path of my life, and my life is good. It’s taught me, most importantly, that I can feel completely broken, completely beyond repair, and still, given time and patience, I can heal–and because of that, I know sorrow is not something to fear.

We talk about sorrow like its trajectory is relentlessly downward: we talk about “feeling down” and how we wish we could “cheer up.” But sorrow doesn’t bring us down. It elevates us. It gives us the kind of perspective you get from climbing to a high place. It makes our world bigger, it casts the net of our awareness wider, it expands us in every way, if we let it.

What I’m saying is, and what I want Kamal to know, is: Don’t be afraid of heartbreak. It sucks, it’s hard, it’s lonesome. But don’t be afraid of it, because it is the thread that connects your human heart to every single other one.