What is the Purpose of Sadness in Grief?

In my introductory post on grief, I wrote that grief “is an utterly human experience filled with emotions that has no correlative. It is not depression. It isn’t sadness. It’s not anxiety. It isn’t melancholy. Yet, it may present itself to the world with these faces and others as well.” That being said, it would be somewhat odd if we experienced grief without sadness as a constitutive element. Such sadness often makes us uncomfortable. After all, we are taught from an earlier age that we are to be happy and to pursue happiness as an unalienable right at all costs. Such a goal leaves little room or purpose for an extended period of sadness as manifested in grief. In other words, we often experience additional cultural pressures to renounce sadness and shorten grief in this life. In so doing, however, we may render null and void the greater purpose of both to which we are often blinded. In commenting on this state of affairs, Saint John Chrysostom writes, “For there is no such thing in this mortal life as being exempt from sorrow. If not today, then tomorrow; if not tomorrow, then at some later date trouble will come. What I mean is that just as one cannot sail over a vast sea, and not feel anxious, so it is not possible to pass through this life without experiencing sadness. If you refer to a rich man, his riches lead him to have inordinate desires; if you refer to the king himself, he is ruled by many and cannot do everything he would like to, granting many favors contrary to his wishes” (Homily 1 on 2 Timothy, PG 62.604). In other words, it is perfectly natural for everyone to feel sad and all the more so to experience the prolonged sadness of grief.

If it is true that sadness and grief are inevitable in this life, are we able to discover a redemptive quality in these experiences that re-orients our lives beyond a nihilistic pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain? Both modern psychologists and the ancient fathers answer in the affirmative.

Suffering is in fact exacerbated when we view sadness as lacking purpose or meaning, but it becomes a bit easier when we accept it as an appropriate emotion in the context of grief that can gently lead the bereaved to a place where some healthy rest can be found. Psychologists Antonio Pascual Leone and Sandra C. Paivio offer such an alternative view in their paper entitled, “Resolution Through Sadness and Grief.” They write in part, “Whereas anger emerges from violation and its expression promotes separation and distance from others; sadness experience and expression promote closeness and connection to self and others.” The authors also remark that the experience of sadness reaffirms the depth and importance of a lost relationship. Leone and Paivio note that sadness is associated with two seemingly disparate behaviors: withdrawal in order to heal and recover as well as seeking out others for support and comfort.

Sadness then teaches us in a way that painfully reaches the very depth of our soul that we are meant to be close to others, that we are meant to be connected to them, and that our relationships somehow are meant to abide. Of course, when a we becomes an isolated I, it hurts and leaves us feeling sad. Ironically, sadness in grief opens our eyes to the true nature of happiness, even if it is in a happiness now lost. Furthermore, the need to be alone with oneself and one’s memories of the beloved as well as the need to have others near are normal responses that are crucial if the grieving party is to learn to live with the loss and sadness associated with grief. In sadness and in grief, soothing words and comfort from others reaffirms our need for connection with our brothers and sisters and plays a defining role in healing and consolation in the midst of grief.

In 1867, Elder Ambrose wrote a poignant letter to the grieving parents whose son had just died. The Russian saint remarks, “Although his death has brought you great grief and sorrow, this same grief can serve to strengthen you in the Christian life, in the practice of good deeds and in a Christian disposition of soul. What the Lord works in us is not only good, but often, exceedingly kind. True, we all want to receive salvation and inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, but we often forget that this comes ‘through many tribulations’ and not infrequently seek after earthly happiness and temporal pleasures in the affairs of life and attachment to worldly things. The All-good Lord, in His infinitely wise Providence, resolves this dilemma by bringing about unexpected deprivations and sorrow, in order that we might come to our senses and turn our spiritual gaze to the acquisition of good things which are not transitory but eternal, everlasting, and unchanging.”

In his letter, Elder Ambrose strives to open up the context in which the grieving parents grapple with their profound loss by taking into account the soul and eternity. He turns their gaze to the possibility of spiritual gain in the presence of an enormous physical loss. As Saint John Chrysostom put it, “There are in short innumerable occasions for sorrow and only one path by which this unevenness can be escaped. It is the path of virtue. It too has its sorrows, only those sorrows are not unprofitable, but produce gain and advantage” (Homily 1 on 2 Timothy, PG 62.604). In other words, the loss remains; the pain and sorrow cannot be avoided, but by struggling for virtue under such conditions, the ups and downs become less severe and our suffering acquires a meaning more profound than this life and its many vagaries.

In offering his support and comfort, Saint Ambrose also encouraged the parents to see beyond the lifeless body of their son and their grief. He bids them see what Saint John Chrysostom perceived in similar circumstances, writing, “Do not then gaze on the countenance of what lies there, for in so doing, you just kindle afresh your grief. Instead, turn your thought away from the one lying there and up to heaven. That is not your child who is lying there, for he has flown away and sprung aloft into boundless heights. So when you see his eyes closed, his lips clenched, and his body motionless, do not have such thoughts as ‘These lips no longer speak, these eyes no longer see, these feet no longer walk, but are all on their way to corruption!’ Do not say this, but the very opposite, ‘These lips shall speak of better things, these eyes shall see greater sites, and these feet shall mount upon the clouds; and this body which now rots away shall put on immortality, and I shall receive my son back more glorious. But if what you sees distresses you, say to yourself ‘This is only clothing and he has put it off to receive it back more precious; this is a house and it is taken down to be restored in greater splendor. When we intend to take down a house, we do not allow the residents to remain inside, so that they may escape the dust and noise; but we have them leave for a little while until we have built up a sturdy home and then we admit them freely. In the same way, God takes down this His decaying tabernacle and in the meantime receives him into His paternal dwelling and unto Himself, so that when it has been taken down and built anew He may then return it to him more glorious” (Homily 1 on Second Corinthians, PG 61.390).

Indeed, sadness associated with grief has a purpose. At a basic psychological level, it reminds us of our connectedness; it is a tribute to the person we love; and it is a cry for help in our solitude. When that level is enlivened with spiritual wisdom, we see how our connectedness with our beloved can be linked to our connectedness with God, we believe that the person we love is preserved in God, and we find that the help to go on can be found in living for our beloved and for our God. Sadness need not be stagnant. It can be the impetus that spurns us on to virtue and increases our faith by turning our gaze from the withering and the passing to the ever flourishing and everlasting, where what is lost can indeed be found. This is what is promised to us by a God Who loves us beyond measure and our feeble understanding. Our sadness in grief, our desire to be alone with our thoughts, and our need for some comfort from others can nudge us in a direction that can transform us for the better. It is not without great pain and deep suffering. But it is also not without purpose and meaning, and there is some comfort in that.

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