The world never stopped spinning when my dad died four weeks ago, even though to me, it felt like it ended. After the funeral and all the relatives went back home I had to jump back into life with both feet. The world doesn’t slow down for grief. It just gets overwhelming. Life still happens all around you, and yet you find yourself in a fog, unable to keep up.
I used to be so good at my daily routine. Now I feel like I need an escape plan. A week, alone, at the beach, just watching the waves come in and go out, sounds perfect.
On good days, I work to find the joy. I work to be grateful. I try to be faithful and work hard at the tasks that God has placed in front of me. I strive to notice the beauty and the amazing blessings that fill my life.
But often, unexpectedly, I’ll become overwhelmed by my sadness in the midst of my joyful everyday. A smell, a special item, a passing thought, a food, anything really, has the power to remind me of my dad and crush me with the memory that he’s gone.
I spend all day everyday on this roller coaster of joy and sorrow, happiness and grief, and it is so incredibly tiring.
Our culture will tell me to just think happy thoughts, to overcome my sadness with gratitude, to be thankful for the time we had together and the blessings he’s now receiving now in heaven. But I’ve learned that negative emotions are an important part of life. Negative emotions teach us, free us, and change us, if we let them.
So often we run from our negative emotions. As soon as we notice pain, sadness, fear, anxiety, or anger bubbling up inside us we switch gears, distract ourselves, and try to move to a positive emotion. But what if we stayed? What if we embraced the negative emotions, felt them, and learned from them?
I think the fear is that we’ll get stuck. If I dwell in my sadness, then I’ll be depressed forever. But I don’t think that’s the truth. In fact, I think that the best way to avoid depression is to actually embrace our negative emotions, each and every time they well up within us.
My dad’s unexpected death is painful, it is tragically sad, it’s unfair, unwanted, and horrible. I don’t need to gloss that pain up with positive thoughts all the time. The reality is that it sucks and I’m sad.
Sadness and anger are legitimate, acceptable, and understandable feelings. Negative emotions are a part of life.
By allowing myself to feel my pain, to feel my negative emotions, I’ve learned that the pain and emotions begin to wash away. Kind of like the waves I dream of watching, they rush in and overwhelm me, but if I stop fighting them, the waves of emotions crash over me and then flow back out to sea. They will come back again and again, but I realize that emotions can’t make me drown by themselves.
People don’t drown because there are waves in the water, they drown because they exhaust themselves trying to fight the waves.
The key to embracing negative emotions without getting stuck in them is to let the negative emotions come, feel them, experience them, and then watch them wash away. Day after day, moment after moment, fight the urge to ignore, resist the temptation to “just think happy thoughts”, and just allow yourself to feel, and heal.
Here are some of the ways I’ve found to feel and experience the fullness of my painful, raw emotions as I start to find healing.
I write everyday. A brain dump of everything I’m thinking and feeling. I type it because my brain thinks faster than my hand can write. But I freely write whatever comes to mind. Sometimes it’s really happy, sometimes it’s confusing and choppy. Often it’s been sad or angry. But I let it all out without judgment and without editing it for being politically correct or “Christian”.
I write what is honestly going on in my head and my heart. It is freeing to pour out the mess that I feel inside me and to see my thoughts on the screen. It is refreshing to know that feeling these feelings, thinking these thoughts, and even writing them down isn’t dangerous or wrong. When I allow myself to feel and express my emotions in a safe way they are able to move through me, out my fingers and onto the screen. The pain of emotions is real, but there is healing to be found when we allow ourselves to truly feel and express that pain.
I remember hanging up the phone with my mom after she called to tell me that my dad had passed. I immediately crumpled to the floor in my kitchen and said, “God, you had better be real.” That was all I could pray at that moment. I was so shocked and shaken, I couldn’t form a complete thought. I couldn’t pray anything more. I didn’t feel angry at God in that moment, I just desperately needed Him to be real, because I knew that if He was real, then my dad was in heaven and we could make it through this. I’m still clinging to that prayer. I just have to remember that He is real and He is good.
Since that first day my prayers have taken on a variety of appearances. One day I’m thanking God for His goodness and blessings, grateful for his peace and strength, while other days, I’ll admit, I’ve called Him a jerk. The good thing is that God can handle my roller coaster prayer life. He has this amazing thing called Grace that pours out on me and understands my pain. He hasn’t struck me down yet and being real with the real God is incredibly freeing. You should try it some time. He can handle your pain and your mess, and He wants to.
Use your people
I’m so grateful for my people. I have good people in my life. My people cry with me and hug me, even at the most inopportune times. My people listen and don’t criticize me for being sad and upset. My people encourage me to rest. My people feed me and take care of my children. I didn’t always have this many good people supporting me through life, but I’m so thankful that right now, when I need them most, I have good people.
Negative emotions can’t be healed in isolation. We were created for community. God created Eve because man should not live alone. We need the support and strength of others to help us when we are weak. If you don’t have people to hash through your negative emotions with, find them. Get a counselor or a coach, call up an old friend, or seek out your pastor or a leader at your church.
Talk out your emotions with real, live people who will listen without judgment and without lengthy advice. Lean on people during the dark days to take you to dinner, babysit your kids, or even clean your house. You need people when going through hard times. They show you that there is good in the world, even when all you see is darkness.
Burn it off
I run every single day, no excuses. The day my dad died I discovered that you can cry while running; it’s hard to breath, but it provides an amazingly good emotional release. To let your pain pour out of you in sweat and tears and breathe, all at the same time feels good in a painful kind of way.
Maybe running isn’t your thing, but exercise in many forms can provide an opportunity to physically release your anger, your sorrow, your fears and your worries. Painful, stressful situations and negative emotions cause our bodies to be tense, alert, and stressed. Oftentimes we experience symptoms as though we are physically ill, when our emotions are actually the culprit.
Physical activity helps to relieve the tension, relax the muscles, and release endorphins to our brain. Endorphins are the “feel good” signals for our brain. Endorphins can help us break out of the negative cycles that our minds often fall into when we’re experiencing negative emotions. Go for a run, find a punching bag, or turn up the music and dance.
I know that my pain will not end soon. It will get better, but I will never be fully healed. That’s both a good and a bad part about death. Bad because I will always have the scars, the dreams and wishes that he was still here, but good because it means that he is worth missing and worth remembering.
Sadness and pain are a part of life. I wish I could go back to my care-free happy life, the life that included my dad in it. But his death is beginning to teach me new lessons. I’m learning that each moment is precious, it is a gift and ignoring, burying, or wishing away our painful moments misses the blessing of now.