by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
“In every heart there is an inner room, where we can hold our greatest treasures and our deepest pain.” — Marianne Williamson
Sadness is a hallmark symptom of grief, which in turn is the consequence of losing something we care about. In this way you could say that sadness and love are inextricably linked.
Yes, when you are grieving, it is normal to feel sad. I would even argue that it is necessary to feel sad. But why is it necessary? Why does the emotion we call sadness have to exist at all? Couldn’t we just move from loss to shock to acceptance without all that pain in the middle?
The answer is that sadness plays an essential role. It forces us to regroup—physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. When we are sad, we instinctively turn inward. We withdraw. We slow down. It’s as if our soul presses the pause button and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoaaa. Time out. I need to acknowledge what’s happened here and really consider what I want to do next.”
This very ability to consider our own existence is, in fact, what defines us as human beings. Unlike other animals, we are self-aware. And to be self-aware is to feel sadness but also joy and timeless love.
I sometimes call the necessary sadness of grief “sitting in your wound.” When you sit in the wound of your grief, you surrender to it. You acquiesce to the instinct to slow down and turn inward. You allow yourself to appropriately wallow in the pain. You shut the world out for a time so that, eventually, you have created space to let the world back in.
The dark night of the soul
While grief affects all aspects of your life—your physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual selves, it is fundamentally a spiritual journey. In grief, your understanding of who you are, why you are here, and whether or not life is worth living is challenged. A significant loss plunges you into what C.S. Lewis, Eckhart Tolle, and various Christian mystics have called “the dark night of the soul.”
Life suddenly seems meaningless. Nothing makes sense. Everything you believed and held dear has been turned upside-down. The structure of your world collapses.
The dark night of the soul can be a long and very black night indeed. If you are struggling with depression after a loss, you are probably inhabiting that long, dark night. It is uncomfortable and scary. The pain of that place can seem intolerable, and yet the only way to emerge into the light of a new morning is to experience the night. As a wise person once observed, “Darkness is the chair upon which light sits.”
The necessity of stillness
Many of the messages that people in grief are given contradict the need for stillness: “Carry on;” “Keep busy;” “I have someone for you to meet.” Yet, the paradox for many grievers is that as they try to frantically move forward, they often lose their way.
Times of stillness are not anchored in a psychological need but in a spiritual necessity. A lack of stillness hastens confusion and disorientation and results in a waning of the spirit. If you do not rest in stillness for a time, you cannot and will not find your way out of the wilderness of grief.
Stillness allows for the transition from “soul work” to “spirit work.” According to the groundbreaking thinking of psychologist Carl Jung, “soul work” is the downward movement of the psyche. It is the willingness to connect with what is dark, deep, and not necessarily pleasant. “Spirit work,” on the other hand, involves the upward, ascending movement of the psyche. It is during spirit work that you find renewed meaning and joy in life.
Soul work comes before spirit work. Soul work lays the ground for spirit work. The spirit cannot ascend until the soul first descends. The withdrawal, slowing down, and stillness of sadness create the conditions necessary for soul work.
Sadness lives in liminal space. “Limina” is the Latin word for threshold, the space betwixt and between. When you are in liminal space, you are not busily and unthinkingly going about your daily life. Neither are you living from a place of assuredness about your relationships and beliefs. Instead, you are unsettled. Both your mindless daily routine and your core beliefs have been shaken, forcing you to reconsider who you are, why you’re here, and what life means.
It’s uncomfortable being in liminal space, but that’s where sadness takes you. Without sadness, you wouldn’t go there. But it is only in liminal space that you can reconstruct your shattered worldview and reemerge as the transformed you that is ready to live and love fully again.
Sadness and empathy
Another evolutionary and still relevant reason for sadness is that it alerts others to the thoughts and feelings that are inside you. We all know what someone who is sad looks like. His posture is slumped. He moves slowly. His eyes and mouth droop. Being able to read others’ sadness is useful because it gives us a chance to reach out and support them. In centuries past we intentionally made our sadness more evident as a signal for others to support us. We wore black for a year, and we donned black armbands. We literally wore our hearts on our sleeves.
Sadness elicits empathy—which is a close cousin to love. Empathy and love are the glue of human connection. And human connection is what makes life worth living.
Receiving and accepting support from others is an essential need of mourning—one we’ll talk more about later in this book. If you try to deny or hide your sadness, you are closing a door that leads to healing.
Your divine spark
Your spiritual self is who you are deep inside—your innermost essence, stripped of all the external trappings of your life. It is who you were before you took on your earthly form, and it is who you will continue to be after you leave it.
It is your soul, or “divine spark”—what Meister Eckhart described as “that which gives depth and purpose to our living.” It is the still, small voice inside of you.
When you are grieving, your divine spark struggles like a candle in the wind. Many hundreds of people in grief have said to me variations on, “I feel so hopeless” or “I am not sure I can go on living.” Like yours, the losses that have touched their lives have naturally muted, if not extinguished, their divine sparks.
When you are depressed, you no longer feel the warm glow of your divine spark inside you. Instead, everything feels dark and cold. The way to relight your divine spark is to turn inward and give your pain the attention it needs and deserves.
Honoring your pain
From my own experiences with loss as well as those of thousands of grieving people I have companioned over the years, I have learned that you cannot go around the pain of your grief. Instead, you must open to the pain. You must acknowledge the inevitability of the pain. You must gently embrace the pain. You must honor the pain.
“What?” you naturally protest. “Honor the pain?” As crazy as it may sound, your pain is the key that opens your heart and ushers you on your way to healing.
Honoring means recognizing the value of and respecting. It is not instinctive to see grief and the need to openly mourn as something to honor; yet the capacity to love requires the necessity to mourn. To honor your grief is not self-destructive or harmful, it is self-sustaining and life-giving.
Yet you have probably been taught that pain and sadness are indications that something is wrong and that you should find ways to alleviate the pain. In our culture, pain and feelings of loss are experiences most people try to avoid. Why? Because the role of pain and suffering is misunderstood. Normal thoughts and feelings after a loss are often seen as unnecessary and inappropriate.
Unfortunately, our culture has an unwritten rule that says while physical illness is usually beyond your control, emotional distress is your fault. In other words, some people think you should be able to “control” or subdue your feelings of sadness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your sadness is a symptom of your wound. Just as physical wounds require attention, so do emotional wounds.
Paradoxically, the only way to lessen your pain is to move toward it, not away from it. Moving toward your sadness is not easy to do. Every time you admit to feeling sad, people around you may say things like, “Oh, don’t be sad” or “Get a hold of yourself,” or “Just think about what you have to be thankful for.” Comments like these hinder, not help, your healing. If your heart and soul are prevented from feeling the sadness, odds are your body may be harmed in the process. Your grief is the result of an injury to your spirit. Now you must attend to your injury.
You will learn over time that the pain of your grief will keep trying to get your attention until you have the courage to gently, and in small doses, open to its presence. The alternative—denying or suppressing your pain—is in fact more painful. I have learned that the pain that surrounds the closed heart of grief is the pain of living against yourself, the pain of denying how the loss changes you, the pain of feeling alone and isolated—unable to openly mourn, unable to love and be loved by those around you.
Yes, the sadness, depression, and pain of loss are essential experiences in life. You are reading this article because you are feeling this and are struggling with the depression. Acknowledging that depression in grief is normal and necessary—even if the people and the culture around you are telling you that you don’t have to feel depressed, that there are ways around the pain— is one significant step on the pathway to healing. The next step is understanding if your depression may be what is called “clinical depression” and, if so, having the courage and self-compassion to seek help.
About the Author
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate, bestselling books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well, including Understanding Your Grief, The Mourner’s Book of Hope, and The Depression of Grief, from which this article was excerpted. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.
What is the reasonable emotional response when you lost a person that dies? ›
Emotionally: Sadness, anger, disbelief, despair, guilt and loneliness. Mentally: Forgetfulness, lack of concentration, confusion and poor memory. Behaviourally: Changes to sleeping patterns, dreams or nightmares, or to your appetite. You might or might not want to go out or be around people.What is the most common grief response? ›
Your emotions or feelings from grief may include shock, numbness, sadness, denial, despair, and/or anger. You might experience anxiety or depression. You can also feel guilty, relieved, or helpless.What is the hardest thing grieving someone who is still alive? ›
One of the hardest parts of grieving someone alive is that you are forced to accept a changed relationship that you do not want. It may be difficult for you to look on a loved one in a different life, but you may be able to experience a rewarding relationship with them in new ways than before.Why can't I accept the death of a loved one? ›
There are a number of reasons why some people struggle with grief more than others. Complicated mourning often occurs when the death was sudden, unexpected, or traumatic. It is also common when the deceased person was young, because the surviving loved ones feel a sense of injustice.What are the 5 emotional responses to death? ›
The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.How long does grief fatigue last? ›
Grieving isn't just an emotional process. It can be surprisingly physical too, leaving you exhausted, achy, restless and even with cold or flu-like symptoms. Your mind and body are run down and burnt out, and you might feel that way for weeks or even months.What happens to your brain when you are grieving? ›
Your brain is on overload with thoughts of grief, sadness, loneliness and many other feelings. Grief Brain affects your memory, concentration, and cognition. Your brain is focused on the feelings and symptoms of grief which leaves little room for your everyday tasks. and recognize it as a step towards healing.What is a form of comfort for a grieving person? ›
If you can't think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug. Offer your support. Ask what you can do for the grieving person. Offer to help with a specific task, such as helping with funeral arrangements, or just be there to hang out with or as a shoulder to cry on.What are five ways to support a grieving person? ›
- Talk about it. It is normal to feel scared about making things more difficult or painful. ...
- Make promises that you can keep. ...
- Stay in touch. ...
- Remember that everyone experiences grief differently. ...
- Give them time.
Let your feelings out.
Grief hurts, but it is natural and healthy to grieve. Let yourself experience your feelings, such as shock, sadness, anger, and loneliness. Don't judge yourself for any feelings, even if you think you should not have them. You might feel guilty or feel pressure to "get over it" from others.
What is the most painful grief? ›
The death of a husband or wife is well recognized as an emotionally devastating event, being ranked on life event scales as the most stressful of all possible losses.What are the 3 C's of grief? ›
Practice the three C's
As you build a plan, consider the “three Cs”: choose, connect, communicate. Choose: Choose what's best for you. Even during dark bouts of grief, you still possess the dignity of choice. “Grief often brings the sense of loss of control,” said Julie.
Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Psalm 73:26 “My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”Do some people never get over grief? ›
Accumulating research within psychiatry and psychology has shown that a significant minority of people – approximately one in 10 – do not recover from grief. Instead, the acute reaction persists over the longer term, leading to trouble thriving socially, mentally and physically.Do we ever stop grieving? ›
When you lose someone close to you, that grief never fully goes away—but you do learn to cope with it over time. Several effective coping techniques include talking with loved ones about your pain, remembering all of the good in your life, engaging in your favorite activities, and consulting with a grief counselor.Who suffers complicated grief? ›
Complicated grief may be considered when the intensity of grief has not decreased in the months after your loved one's death. Some mental health professionals diagnose complicated grief when grieving continues to be intense, persistent and debilitating beyond 12 months.Why we should not cry when someone dies? ›
It is perfectly normal not to cry when someone dies. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and everyone deals with loss in their own way. It doesn't mean that you don't care, that you are cold, or that you are broken in any way. It simply means that you process your emotions in a different way.Can a death make you not want to cry anymore? ›
Emotional numbness is a common experience following a trauma, so it's no wonder it can happen after a death.How do you mentally accept death? ›
- Come to terms with feelings of loss. ...
- Have open conversations. ...
- Figure out your life's purpose. ...
- Make amends with those you love. ...
- Live through your bucket list. ...
- Plan accordingly to ease fears. ...
- Trust in your faith. ...
- Simplify your life.
This is known as complicated grief, sometimes called persistent complex bereavement disorder. In complicated grief, painful emotions are so long lasting and severe that you have trouble recovering from the loss and resuming your own life. Different people follow different paths through the grieving experience.
What stage of grief is apathy? ›
Disorganization and Despair: This phase is marked by initial acceptance of the reality of the loss. The grieving person may experience feelings of apathy, anger, despair, and hopelessness. The person often desires to withdraw and disengage from others and the activities they regularly enjoyed.How does grief affect you spiritually? ›
And grief can also can affect your sense of spirituality. Whatever your spirituality, losses can really test those beliefs. One of the issues in grief is to reconnect, maybe even rebuild, a faith or a philosophy challenged by loss. Sometimes that means looking at your faith in a deeper way.Does grief change your face? ›
Grief or bereavement releases the hormone cortisol in reaction to stress that breaks down tissue and, in excess, can lead to collagen breakdown and accelerated aging. High cortisol levels prompt the skin's sebaceous glands to release more sebum. This in turn results in clogged pores, inflammation, and an increase in p.Is it normal to cry everyday after a death? ›
People react to grief in very different ways. Some people find they cry very frequently and may be overwhelmed by the strength of their emotions. Others may feel numb for some time, or feel unable to cry. Some people experience swings between extremes.What is grief burnout? ›
2: exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration ~ Merriam Webster.How does grief change your personality? ›
Personality changes like being more irritable, less patient, or no longer having the tolerance for other people's “small” problems. Forgetfulness, trouble concentrating and focusing. Becoming more isolated, either by choice or circumstances. Feeling like an outcast.Is it normal to want to be alone while grieving? ›
In grief, we need the stillness of alone time to feel our feelings and think our thoughts. To slow down and turn inward, we must sometimes actively cultivate solitude. Being alone is not the curse we may have been making it out to be. It is actually a blessing.Can grief mess with your mind? ›
Grief and loss affect the brain and body in many different ways. They can cause changes in memory, behavior, sleep, and body function, affecting the immune system as well as the heart. It can also lead to cognitive effects, such as brain fog.How do you keep in touch with someone who is grieving? ›
Keeping in touch
The person who has been bereaved may be feeling vulnerable and they need to know that they can trust you. Thoughtful gestures such as inviting them for coffee, or to go for a walk, or just sending a text to say you're thinking of them, can really help.
Aches and pains are a common physical symptom of grief. Grief can cause back pain, joint pain, headaches, and stiffness. The pain is caused by the overwhelming amount of stress hormones being released during the grieving process. These effectively stun the muscles they contact.
What food to bring to grieving family? ›
Hearty meals like casseroles, slow cooker meals, soups, and stews are ideal. This could include dishes like lasagna, pulled pork, meatballs, macaroni and cheese, chili, or chicken soup. Not everyone is a great cook, but that doesn't mean you can't help a grieving family with sympathy food.How often should you check on someone who is grieving? ›
Check in every now and then just to say hello (you may find it helpful to put reminders on your calendar). Most bereaved people find it difficult to reach out and need others to take the initiative.What year of grief is the hardest? ›
Often the second year is the hardest as that's when the real grief work might begin. This is the time when you may be ready to face your grief head on and deal with any issues that are holding you back. If you're not ready yet though, don't feel guilty. There is no deadline and everyone grieves in their own time.Why is grief the most powerful emotion? ›
Grief is even more powerful, subtle, and complex. This is why it is so overwhelming. It is an amalgam of all our most powerful feelings in a distressing roiling cauldron of emotion. It is anger at the injustice, bitterness about the loss, fear for the future, regrets about the times you were less than perfect.What is the biggest loss in life? ›
"Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside while still alive. Never surrender." ~ Tupac Shakur | SRTK.What are the four quadrants of grief? ›
She spoke regularly about unconditional love, the importance of dealing with our unfinished business, the symbolic language sometimes used by dying people, the four quadrants of the human being: the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual, and AIDS.What are the 4 patterns of grief? ›
Grief is universal. Many people tend through 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages were originally devised for people who were ill but have been adapted for coping with grief.How do you cope when your husband dies? ›
- Take care of yourself. Grief can be hard on your health. ...
- Try to eat right. Some widowed people lose interest in cooking and eating. ...
- Talk with caring friends. ...
- Visit with members of your religious community. ...
- See your doctor.
One of the most comforting verses in the Bible is found in Deuteronomy 31:6, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not leave you or forsake you."Will we recognize each other in heaven? ›
In fact, the Bible indicates we will know each other more fully than we do now. The Apostle Paul declared, "Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12). It's true that our appearance will change, because God will give us new bodies, similar to Jesus' resurrection body.
What Psalm is comfort in grief? ›
Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up. You will increase my honor and comfort me once again.
- Accept some loneliness. Loneliness is completely normal, but it is important not to get too isolated. ...
- Choose good company. ...
- Be gentle with yourself. ...
- Get extra rest. ...
- Embrace all emotions. ...
- Set a regular sleep schedule. ...
- Move your body. ...
- Talk to your doctor.
When you lose someone close to you, that grief never fully goes away—but you do learn to cope with it over time. Several effective coping techniques include talking with loved ones about your pain, remembering all of the good in your life, engaging in your favorite activities, and consulting with a grief counselor.How do you accept losing someone you love? ›
- Realise That Each Grief Experience Is Unique. ...
- Listen As You Expect Others To Listen To You. ...
- Don't Interrupt When Someone Is Offloading. ...
- Think About Your Children. ...
- Don't Put Grief Off. ...
- Take A Step Back & Take Care Of Yourself. ...
- Recognise Negative Coping Mechanisms.
'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.What does grief do to your brain? ›
Your brain is on overload with thoughts of grief, sadness, loneliness and many other feelings. Grief Brain affects your memory, concentration, and cognition. Your brain is focused on the feelings and symptoms of grief which leaves little room for your everyday tasks.Where does grief get stuck in the body? ›
The heartbreak of grief can increase blood pressure and the risk of blood clots. Intense grief can alter the heart muscle so much that it causes "broken heart syndrome," a form of heart disease with the same symptoms as a heart attack. Stress links the emotional and physical aspects of grief.How long does it take to stop grieving over a death? ›
There is no set length or duration for grief, and it may come and go in waves. However, according to 2020 research , people who experience common grief may experience improvements in symptoms after about 6 months, but the symptoms largely resolve in about 1 to 2 years.Does a person ever stop grieving? ›
It's common for the grief process to take a year or longer. A grieving person must resolve the emotional and life changes that come with the death of a loved one. The pain may become less intense, but it's normal to feel emotionally involved with the deceased for many years.Can you attend your own funeral? ›
However, it truly is possible to attend your own funeral / memorial service / celebration of life. What Next Avenue calls a “living funeral,” perhaps better called a “living tribute,” is becoming more common every day.
What does the Bible say about comfort in time of loss? ›
Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Psalm 73:26 “My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”What does the Bible say about death and mourning? ›
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." The Good News: God will never abandon us during our times of grief. Instead, he will always provide us with love and hope.
Grieving can be painful because losing someone important to you can be very distressing and can come with some powerful emotions. But grief itself is not an illness. It cannot be fixed, or cured, or made to go away. Over time the grief and pain you feel will usually become less strong.