There are so many very specific sadnesses in the world right now. Some are small, some are large, and some are so huge they cannot be fathomed all at once but must be taken in stages, a little each day. Everyone has lost something, whether it’s a morning routine of coffee at a café, a long-awaited vacation, or vital income. My friends Matt and Sarah have lost weekend visits with their son who lives in a group home. My friends Stephanie and Alia have lost weeks of leaving the house, as their health issues force them to self-quarantine. My writer friends and I have lost our long-dreamed-of in-person book launches, where we would proudly read out loud the words we toiled over alone for so long. Another friend lost her husband to a heart attack. He was my friend too. I can barely fathom it.
In the normal pattern of life, we take turns being the comforters and the comforted. But now there is so much sadness in everyone that we are all in need of comfort. We may feel that our sadness over small things is not worth comparing to the grief of those who have lost loved ones, and in a way that is true. But it is still sorrow, and the proper thing to do with sorrow is to acknowledge it and to feel it. Studies show that those who are given space to process their feelings in a tragedy or crisis are much less likely to develop PTSD. When I am struggling, even when the depression is really bad, I find it infinitely helpful if someone says simply, “I hear you. That sounds really hard.” If, on the other hand, people tell me to cheer up, or to “just” anything––just get outside more, just pray for healing, just keep a gratitude journal and you’ll be fine––then the depression gets stuck in my heart and my throat and festers there.
The other day I took the kids I nanny to one of my favorite spots in the woods, where a stream runs down a hillside and under a bridge on the footpath. We played “Pooh Sticks” for a while, dropping sticks off one side of the bridge, and waiting for them to emerge on the other side. After a while I noticed that a lot of the sticks were getting stuck on a build-up of leaves and branches under the bridge, so the kids and I found long branches and set about cleaning out the gunk, experimenting with different angles to see which gave us the best reach and view of the obstruction.
Our tears and sorrow––along with our anger, frustration, fear, and confusion––are like that stream. If we allow them to be, they flow smoothly, and the feelings pass through us. But if they get caught up in the debris of guilt or blame, or of being diminished by others or by us, they cause a blockage that builds and builds, and they end up staying with us, affecting our mental and physical health. We have to take time to let ourselves feel our own very specific sadness as well as the general sadness of the world, knowing that in the end it will be less painful than if we ignore it. And we have to let others feel what they feel, too, and acknowledge their feelings.
That day in the woods I begged off of our work on the stream after a while, and leaned back against a tree as the kids kept working, following the stream farther up the hill, leaping from bank to bank. I watched them, trying not to be nervous about them falling, or falling in. That’s part of childhood, after all––falling down, getting muddy and wet, letting the tears come, and then getting back up again to play. When they do fall, I say, “Oh, that looked like it hurt! Can I see? Any blood? Do you need a hug?”
What if we gave ourselves the attention and care we would give to a child? What if we looked at our pain and acknowledged it? What if we showed it to someone we trusted and said, “This hurts. I’m bleeding.” And what if we offered acknowledgment to each other of that pain? “That does look like it hurts. I’m sorry. Do you need a hug, or a prayer, or maybe just for me to sit on the other end of the phone while you cry? Can I mail you some chocolate or some tea?”
The world needs big, concerted action right now. But our hearts need small acts of kindness and gentleness, too. As David Whyte writes in his poem, “Loaves and Fishes”:
This is not
the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time of loaves
People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.
Take care of yourselves, friends. And take care of each other.
Jessica Kantrowitz is the author of The Long Night. To learn more about The Long Night, click here.