Sadness friend or foe…?

Sadness is one aspect of grief.

The sadness and sorrow after the death of someone central to who we are, is frequently of an overwhelming nature, powerfully uncomfortable and sometimes frightening in intensity.

It is also an emotion that people want to apologise for, thinking it a sign of ‘not moving on’, of weakness and inadequacy.

At its purest, sadness is love in the face of physical absence.

Grieving may be understood as what is experienced as one becomes accustomed to a world forever changed the includes the person who died with a different connection, a non-physical one.

People may die, but our relationships with them do not.

Sadness is, in fact, a useful and necessary emotion.

Leaving aside cultural rules about this emotion, the question may be asked as to what purpose does it serve?…What good does it do?…Why would nature have chosen this emotion?

The emotion of sadness occurs when we have lost someone or something that is important to us, and there is nothing we can do about it.  Sadness turns our attention inward so that we can reflect and think.  It allows a close examination of everything…which is part of what is necessary to rebuild life around the pain of loss.

Sadness slows us down; it slows down our biological systems contributing to withdrawing of attention from the outside world to our inner world.

Moreover, when we are sad, we look sad.  Our face and body language signal to those around us that we may need help, care and compassionate understanding.

We are hard-wired to respond to each other in this way.  We are biologically constructed to respond with care and concern when we see others suffering.

While many of us have been conditioned to perceive sadness as a negative emotion, it is a necessary emotion and has its usefulness and wisdom.

We are expected to be in control of our emotions and while it is important to learn how to ‘dose” ourselves when faced with intense emotions i,e. Get a break from them; it is important not to suppress them, deny or avoid them,

We, in our culture, tend to overvalue reason, logic and the capacity to be rational.  Conversely, the language of the heart tends to be undervalued.

We search and are encouraged to seek quick remedy, relief and recovery.  We don’t like to be vulnerable, out of control.  We tend to keep our intense emotions secret and unseen and may even feel ashamed of them.

We are taught that to give too much room to intense emotions may be a sign of weakness or breakdown.

We turn away rather than toward them because of cultural conditioning and because they can also be frightening.

Grieving people sometimes fear that they will be overwhelmed by emotions like passionate sadness forever.  They may also feel as if they are going crazy because of the intensity and unpredictability of intense sadness.

Our language is full of advice such as ‘get a hold of your self’, ‘get a grip’, ‘stay in control’ amongst many others.

The fear is that overwhelming emotion may be destructive.

We are sometimes encouraged to take medication that will make us feel better.  The focus is on getting rid of strong emotions rather than learning from them.  It may be difficult to believe that having strong, intense emotions acknowledged, listened and attended to, in fact, helps them diminish.

Sadness and sorrow are neither positive nor negative in themselves …it is the way we think about them that is positive or negative.  How we think about things affects how problematic they may become.

Profound and passionate sadness is not a bad thing.  It is the most normal emotion imaginable following the death of a child.  While at the beginning that sadness may fill every inch of your being, it does not stay the same shape and colour for the rest of time.

Feeling emotional pain is not a sign of being sick…it is a sign of having loved deeply.  It is the other side of love and as noted previously plays an important role in rebuilding life around the pain of loss.  It allows an inward reflection on such questions as  ‘Who am I now?’, ‘How am I different?’, ‘What do I need?’, etc. and it acts as a signal to the world around that compassionate care is required.  This care includes the time and space to, for a while, withdraw from our normal concerns.

In spending time with intense and profound emotion, it is possible to discover or renew the capacity for gratitude, joy, faith, courage and compassion.

Healing is a journey through pain not a departure from it.

The purpose of intense emotion is not to make us miserable forever but to help us heal.

with special thanks to my social work colleague Vera Russell

Supporting Grieving Adolescents

fantastic-wallpaper-with-butterflieMany bereaved families may have surviving adolescent children who are mourning the loss of their brother or sister.

This is often new territory both for the teenager and also for the parents trying to work out our best to care for them especially when they are feeling so emotionally depleted.

Some things to think about:

1. Grief is not always visible

Grief is not just the outward display of emotion. It is also the thoughts and behaviours that we experience in response to the death of someone we love.
As adolescents are in the process of becoming more independent of their parents and other important adults, they may at times feel reluctant to show feelings or talk about their thoughts as it can reinforce a sense of dependence and vulnerability. They may also choose to inhibit some of their thoughts and feelings out of a desire to protect their families. They may also prefer to share their experiences with their peer group.

Strategy: Be available

It is when we are listened to and heard is when we feel most understood. Create a home environment where open communication is encouraged. Convey to them that it is okay to have the thoughts and feelings that they may have and that you will be available should they decide to let you know what is going on with them.
As with adults, at the beginning of grief, it is sometimes very difficult to communicate what we are thinking and feeling…it is no less difficult for adolescents who have less life experience than adults and who, when they are feeling vulnerable may find it difficult to put things into words.

2. Don’t try to “fix” the pain associated with grief

It is difficult and uncomfortable for parents to witness the pain of their children. They usually want life to be okay for their children and are pained by what they see and uncomfortable about the helplessness it can create in them. This means that we may want to take away or fix the pain of those we love. This may take the form of avoiding conversation about the person who has died or distracting them from thinking or feeling their pain. While this may be momentarily effective, it can result in the adolescent hiding their grief or withdrawing or expressing their grief in destructive ways.

Strategy: Talk about the loss

Invite the adolescent to talk about the person who died. Encourage questions. Should the teenager not want to talk, respect this. Offer others that they may speak with about their feelings.
Always answer questions honestly and clearly. If you do not know the answer to something, say so. Share your memories, thoughts, beliefs and don’t expect that your teenager will always see things as you do.

3) Understand that grief does not proceed in orderly predictable stages.

Young people grieve in doses. Like with adults, their grief is more likely to go in waves. Sometimes adolescents may have outbursts of grief after a period when they have seemed perfectly okay. Know that this is normal. Their grief like yours, may at times seem unpredictable. They are no better at grieving or making sense of the world than adults. The difference is that they may seem unaffected for periods of time and a burst of emotion can catch parents unawares.

Strategy: Allow for adjustment

Because grief does not proceed in an orderly fashion, teenagers need to be allowed leeway as they adjust to a life forever changed. Providing a secure, consistent environment with predictable routines is important. This helps to generate a renewed feeling of safety and security. Be aware of any danger signs such as violence, drug and alcohol abuse, risk-taking behaviour or dramatic changes in personality. Seek help when necessary.

4) Model Healthy Grief

Like all of us, adolescents learn from those around them. They will pick up implicit and explicit messages from those around them on how to grieve. This is how they think they should behave or are expected to behave. They take their cues from important grown-ups in their lives (even if they do not look like they are paying attention).

Strategy: Mourn together

Be aware of the messages that they may be receiving from those around them about how to grieve and offer alternatives when appropriate.
The more adolescents observe healthy communication and the appropriate expression of the many feelings associated with loss, the more likely they may understand, accept and manage the breadth of emotions and thoughts they may have.

Try as much as possible to consider what things might look like from their perspective. Give thought to the closeness of the relationship your teenager shared with their brother or sister. Acknowledge the deep loss it is for them too.

When you can, in the midst of your grief, set aside time, attention and availability for the adolescent. That does not necessarily mean talking about the death but maybe just time spent together doing something that is fun and thereby communicating that they matter and they too are important.

Finally, remember that this is new for all of you and that there will be some trial and error as families become better able to take care of each other.

8 Suggestions for Therapists working with bereaved parents

My niece at a Hospice Butterfly Release (2013)

Working with a parent whose child has died can present unique challenges for a therapist on two levels:


1) A therapist who is also a mother or father finds themselves confronted with a parent’s worst nightmare. Unless acknowledged in clinical supervision, he/she may have difficulty being objective when working with surviving parents and family members.


2) The discovery that short-term or solution focused therapies falls short in addressing the ongoing challenges faced by parents after the death of their children.


I am a Licensed Master Social Worker, a retired addiction professional and a parent who has experienced the death of a child. My daughter Jeannine died on March 1, 2003, at the age of 18, due to a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

The re-examination of my personal priorities and values following Jeannine’s death, extended to the therapeutic approaches that I used with chemically dependent individuals. Prior to Jeannine’s death, I typically employed the stage theory of grief with substance users who experienced loss due to death. Stage theory was all that I knew.


My own experience after catastrophic loss taught me that grief didn’t progress in a series of linear, predictable stages. If grief wasn’t linear for me, then I couldn’t expect it to be for my clients.


Based on what I have discovered about myself today, I want to share 8 suggestions for therapists working with bereaved parents. I also believe that what follows applies to all individuals who have experienced loss due to death:

  • Focus on being a companion on the journey: It is important for therapists to bear witness to a parent’s path after the death of their child. Stories of relationships with their children need to be honoured. Through storytelling, therapists get to know the deceased child through the eyes of the parent.
  • Be prepared to witness parents’ experiences with after-death communication:  Many parents that I have companioned, routinely share instances where they have sensed the presence of their children. Since Jeannine’s death, I have received many signs of her presence. It is important for therapists to ask parents what thoughts they experienced prior to receiving the communication. The signs that parents receive from their children are usually a result of what transpires in the present. Some therapists may be sceptical of the existence of after death communication. Regardless of beliefs, it is important to reserve judgment and listen. I was one of those sceptics ……until my daughter died. Two very good books on this topic are: Hello From Heaven by Bill and Judy Guggenheim and Visions of the Bereaved by Kay Witmer Woods.
  • Recognise each parent’s right to grieve as he/she sees fit: Each parent’s expression of pain is unique. Empower parents to grieve in a way that is meaningful for them and effectively facilitates mourning after their children die. Any healthy expression of grief should be honoured
  • Emphasise the importance of ongoing support: Usually support groups composed of individuals who have experienced a similar type of loss (i.e. child, spouse) are the most effective. In my experience, effective therapy plus meaningful peer support is a powerful combination to help bereaved parents work through their grief.
  • Being aware of language: Avoid the use of the terms “closure “and “moving on” in therapy. Bereaved parents learn to navigate grief by maintaining ongoing bonds with their loved ones. It is through remembering and honouring the existence of their children, for as long as they live, that facilitates meaningful lives after loss.
  • Recognise that the sadness of loss is not the same as clinical depression: With grief work and ongoing support, sadness lessens and become more manageable over time. Many grieving individuals with whom I have worked, didn’t have a history of mental health challenges. Medicating grief for these individuals may delay the work that is needed to effectively negotiate it. However, if a therapist is working with bereaved parents with pre-existing emotional health or substance use issues, continued management of mental health symptoms and/or maintenance of sobriety for grief work to be effective, needs to be emphasised.
  • Helping bereaved parents recognise that they are much more: For purposes of clarity, I have used the term bereaved parents throughout this piece. It is crucial that therapists help parents discover that their identities extend beyond being bereaved. With the help of others and my desire to see the experience of loss differently, I began acknowledging my other skills as a parent to my two surviving children and as a teacher, friend and husband. Don’t allow parents to buy into the illusion that being bereaved is the totality of their identity.
  • Emphasise self-care: Though I have discovered that bereavement support is extremely fulfilling, continually attending to the energy of parents who have experienced the death of a child, can be extremely draining. It is crucial for therapists to routinely empower parents to do what nourishes their souls, in the aftermath of the death of their children. As a therapist empowers bereaved parents to fulfil their needs, he/she must be mindful of doing the same with respect to his/her needs.


Dave Roberts, Contributor Huffington Post, Adjunct Professor of Psychology-Utica College, Writer and speaker with specialities in grief and loss, spirituality and addiction.  

Little steps…


As I sit here on the fourth anniversary of your death my darling little girl, I look dispassionately upon myself, the shattered prism of me.  I, as if occupying an outer body person look at this stranger who on the one hand can sit and write so unemotionally yet who also contains a part body that can blink to enable it to see the person reduced to tears bereft of all emotion but utter desolation.   Blink again to see the strong person many others perceive, flash again to see the scared and frightened rabbit person peering in fear of the world from her burrow and I wonder will me ever come back again and do I even know who I am anymore.  Each part of the prism itself shattered in sharp shards upon the floor of earth.

Four years ago almost to the hour as I held your beautiful self, trapped in a  frail body ravaged by twelve months of chemotherapy and radiation and unspeakable tortures and pain, I did not know how my world would be forever changed and distorted beyond measure.   I am, at this time outwardly showing a small window of my pain and inwardly screaming the primal scream of the mother who realises that she will no longer see you again as her vibrant, loving child.    A mother utterly defeated by an enemy she cannot fight.   A force that no matter how much love there is, it cannot stop the final closing of your eyes, the shallow breaths, and the eventual barely perceptible release of your body from its earthly shell held so tightly in a frightened despairing mother’s arms releasing you to what and where she does not know.  The final act of torture that began in her mind a few hours ago when the doctors declare their inability to do any more for you, for us.

A part of me can look back now with pride, watching our respective strengths in the face of the inevitable.  Watching you tidying up your fifteen short years upon this earth writing thank you letters to all the staff thanking them for trying so hard to save you.   A letter for me to open later.   I watch you and I struggling to understand what is happening but at the same instant knowing that it is merely a matter of time before we begin that final journey that we will do together as mother and daughter.   I cannot go back to some of those hours locked behind steel doors that no one but you and I can see today, the trauma now held in the grip of my inner recesses of my mind.  I think of the horror I see in your sweet face when I ask you if there is anything you wish me to give your friends and your reply a maturity beyond your years, “Oh no, mummy, people judge their worth by what they are given.”  On the one hand, I hear that natural expression of yours “mummy” and the part of you that has never changed my little girl, and on the contrary, I listen to the words so wise that trip from your lips.  I see you write down for your professor to read how “sorry you are that you cannot give him the gift of saving your life”.  I take an opportunity to go out of your room, to gather my strength only to see the devastating effect your impending death has on those who have been so much a presence in our lives.  The professor you adore, in his private world and tears, the doctors, the nurses all so evidently aware that the curtain of earthly life is soon to close.  I can no longer dwell upon that last hours scene for the risk that I will be propelled into a state in which others will take control of me. 

I am alone now, more than I ever have been in my life physically, mentally and emotionally and even now cannot let myself go for fear that I will lose me altogether and begin the walk of the living dead.   I turn on the “coping me” that part of me I use, to get through many days and nights and that I now use to complete this writing.  I will shut tight again the doors that hold the trauma of that time, again close them to remain known only to myself and you.  I live in fear that I will slip again into that state of catatonia that rendered me incapable that first month after you died.  That state that stopped me from being able to bury you for many, many weeks.   That state that I  snapped out of by rude, unkind people demanding to know when I was “going to lay you to rest.”  The said and unsaid pressure for me to “get on with life”, the cruel taunt that life goes on without you.

Four years later I can say that I have plumbed the depths of utter desolation and flirted with my death.   Pills piled in front of me, not once but several times I try, but I am not to have that natural release despite my strenuous attempts.  No one knows how many times I have tried and not succeeded how frustrated and painful life is for me.  How many times I have lain for days in pill-induced sleep another attempt thwarted by forces unknown for I am sure each time I have taken enough to send me on my way.

You asked me once, a long time ago what I thought happens to us when we die.  The depth of my reply shows how little I had thought about it.  I had not thought of it at all really, except as I said,” I would like to think that there are more than three score years and ten.”  I came from a dysfunctional family who warred over religion.  I, in turn, looked the other way when it came to religion and spirituality and lumped that part of other people’s life into a box.   I was not interested in pursuing it until I had to, if ever had to, being so sure in my thinking that it was a moot point.  Mindful only that I had you so late in life that I had to make sure only that you be prepared to live without me.

Sometime in the past four years and I can honestly say I do not know when my mother’s instincts again kicked in.    I became desperate to find out where you were, were you safe and was there something I was not doing that was thwarting your attempts to keep your end of the bargain that we had made.  The promise that we had made to each other on that last day that “if there were a way to communicate we would find it.”  Instinctively we must have known that there was more ‘to life’ than this to make this pact with each other.  I see that now so clearly.  I see also so clearly how my  lack of knowledge and grief was holding up our path.

I remember that it was an aha moment at the time, but when that moment happened remains a mystery of the past four years.  One operates on automatic, in a somewhat fog of daily living as I am sure you the reader can imagine that envelops the parent who has to bury their child.  A state that makes them a walking, seemingly okay shell.

But yes, it was an aha moment that there is a difference between religion and spirituality.  I had spent my time since you left reading, studying all I could, about death, life,  the religions of the world, the worlds of spirit, the world not known to me at the time you left and it was a significant point at which I changed in my grieving.   No longer was I wallowing in my pain, rocking at the mercy of emotions.  Pulling myself each time from the depths of what I cannot describe in words but which another parent who buries their child would know. Slowly no longer did I feel helpless without hope. 

I have learnt that the religions of the world to help in spiritual matters are weak support for any but those who do not seek proof, those who are content, to follow without question.  I know I have tested their representatives and words to the extreme as indeed I have tested many “schools of thought”.

I have learnt that there is no easy way for a grieving mother to have answered that very, very basic need of hers to know where her child was in a definitive manner.   I also know it should not be like this.   In general terms, death is to be feared,  seen as final, just as I thought four years ago when I held you, my daughter in my arms.   I very nearly lost my mind and close to losing my life because I did not have what every person should know without question that death is not the end.

Our common usage words departed, deceased, and dead have a common connotation of The End. We really should be the using the most accurate terms such as graduate, transition, and cross over. 

I have found that there is life after bodily death.  I have proved beyond doubt that I can communicate with my beautiful daughter and that there are ways that other parents and families can do the same with their beloved children.    I have found solid, irrefutable evidence that we do live after death that we do not lay in some cold place waiting to be “called.”  I have learned that there is proof out there and available if you need it.  I have also learned how hard it is to find for someone in my position.   I believe it should not be so, so hard, so very hard for grieving people to find some peace.   I think it should be common knowledge and accepted that there is more that we can do between the worlds.

I believe that if you and I my darling can show just one other person the path then our pain and trauma will have been worth it.  To give a gift of peace to another mother or father that yes your child does live on and “is with you more than you can ever realise and this is how you can communicate” would be a gift worth giving indeed. 

The Whirlpool

The well-written article on depression is shared here for you to ponder, we often read of what it is like, and certainly many of us experience depression in many ways but it never hurts to look at other perspectives to our own.  Please enjoy this contribution by clicking on The Whirlpool below.

As my Facebook feed filled with people mourning the death of Robin Williams, seemingly by his own hand, I thought back to a conversation I had with my psychiatrist less than a week ago. I only see …

Source: The Whirlpool