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Lessons in Sadness

Personal Perspective: Anticipated grief isn't the same as real grief.

Key points

  • My cat and my old friend died within weeks of each other.
  • I worried for years about how bad I'd feel when they died. Now that it's here, I'm learning some things.
  • Genuine emotion is never like what you thought it would be.
  • I'm learning that I don't have to be afraid of feelings.

My little cat, Marigold, who sat on my lap every morning when I meditated, whose small, peaceful presence graced my house and my life for many years, got horribly sick and died recently.

I worried about how I would feel when this happened every single day for at least seven years. The worry was part of my meditation. It visited me every morning the way she visited me, hopping up onto my lap in the green brocade chair in the corner of my study. I hugged her little body, ran my hand along the soft fur on her back, and thought about how she was getting old; her bones were getting fragile; she wasn’t going to be here, sitting on my lap in the morning forever. When I thought about that, I felt sad, and that brought on the worry. I wasn’t worried about her dying, really. I was worried about how I would feel when she died. I talked about that so much my friends all knew I worried about it; I wrote about worrying about it. And now, here it is.

The sadness has been awful. I’ve been crying a lot, letting the sadness out in the form of tears and noisy breathing and everything else that crying entails. I’ve always had a hard time crying, either alone or in front of anyone. But it seems to have gotten easier than it used to be, and having it be easier—letting myself cry and not being afraid of crying—is one of the things that is making this event not quite as horrible as I was worried it would be. Plus, doing the crying itself, which, in my opinion, is really the only way to get any relief from sadness, is softening and changing the grief. It’s not making it go away; it’s just somehow making it less nightmarish.

Shortly after Marigold died, another thing happened that I had been worrying about for years. Again, I wasn’t really worried about it happening; I was worried about how I would feel when it happened. My friend Dave died.

Dave was someone I had known in various contexts for 30 years. We took walks around town for exercise together; we went on retreats at a nearby Trappist monastery together. And when he found out he had leukemia about seven years ago, he asked me if I would call and check on him every day because he was afraid he’d die alone in his apartment and no one would know. If he didn’t answer after a couple of days, I was supposed to call the management in his building and have them see if he was okay.

After that, we talked briefly on FaceTime about every afternoon for almost seven years. He was pretty much housebound because of the illness, but he was always cheerful and busy and engaged with life, painting or sketching or reading something astonishing (to me), such as Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He outlived his prognosis by at least five years, but I could see that he, like Marigold, was eventually getting more and more fragile, and seeing that increased my worry about how I was going to feel when he was no longer around. Then, also like Marigold, he suddenly got very ill. He went to the hospital and was gone three days later.

Somehow, I haven’t been crying as much about Dave as I have been about Marigold, although I miss him painfully, especially at around five o’clock when we usually had our phone calls. It might be the fact that I’ve been busy with “death duties." Dave asked me to take care of a few things after he passed—so I haven’t had enough time for the feelings to sink in, or maybe I cried so much about Marigold I don’t have much crying left. Or maybe it’s something else. This sadness feels worse than the Marigold sadness. Maybe it’s trapped somewhere inside me in the area of my stomach like something not very good that I ate that hasn’t been digested. I’m hoping to digest it, possibly through crying at some point, maybe at Dave's memorial service.

I find it really interesting that the two things I’ve been dreading for years and years both happened within a couple of weeks of each other. I feel a little stunned by the fact that these two beings that I loved and observed and worried over for so long are no longer here. The two things I was afraid of happening have actually happened instead of just threatening to happen or happening in my imagination.

But I want to say, without sounding glib, that I’m really okay. And I’m learning something useful. What I’m learning is that the real thing is never like what you thought it would be, never as bad as what you imagined it would be. This is not to say that loss and grief and the myriad other painful things that life can dish up don't feel bad. But I’m finding that I’m not as afraid of how I will feel when those things happen. I'm not as afraid of sadness as I used to be.

I’m learning that I don’t have to be afraid of feelings. This is not an easy lesson for me, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to hold onto it. But I would like to hold onto it. I would like to go forward into the future, being more able to take pleasure in the present moment, to let go and let life unfold without anticipating and worrying about the painful things that could—in some cases, even probably will—happen. Because I don't actually know how I'll feel when and if they happen. And in the meantime, I'd like to be here now, experiencing and enjoying whatever it is.

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