Holding the sadness

by | Dec 3, 2020 | Grief, Holding Space for Yourself, Safe Space

Listen to Heather read the post…


Yesterday, I came undone. It’s been a rough week. With our province on lockdown (no restaurants, gyms, coffee shops or movie theatres are open, and stores can only sell essential items), the infection numbers staying stubbornly high, the weather getting colder, and the time since I’ve spent any quality time with friends stretching behind and ahead of me, I was feeling claustrophobic, frustrated, and sad. At one point, yesterday, I came out of my bedroom where I was trying to get some work done (the only space I can close the door to work, with my house currently full of daughters), and my daughter looked at me with some alarm. I think I had the look of a caged animal on my face.

I had tried, that morning, to do all of the things I could to convince myself that I was okay, that I was emotionally balanced, that I had many reasons for gratitude, and that I could get my work done if I only powered through, but nothing was working. I still felt caged and on the verge of cracking open.

So as not to frighten my daughters, I went for a drive and gave myself the one small indulgence that seems possible these days – a chai latte from the drive through. And then I drove into the country, hoping that maybe the open prairie sky would help soothe away the caged feeling.

I let myself cry for awhile, and then all of those parts of me that want to believe I’m a reasonably well-balanced emotionally mature adult did their best to convince me that I’m over-reacting, that I should just focus on how beautiful the sunset was, that I should redirect my thoughts to try to keep my emotions in check, blah, blah, blah.

And then suddenly, in a moment of fierce clarity, a tiny voice broke through the chaos in my head, as though a small child had found a break in the conversation between adults at a busy dinner table to finally be heard.

“I just want to feel sad right now,” she said.

And with that, all of the grown-ups stopped their conversations mid-sentence and there was silence. Nobody knew quite what to do with the honesty that had just been spoken. They all just looked at the little girl in bewilderment. They bit their tongues, wanting to interrupt her but knowing she needed to be heard.

“I just want to feel sad right now,” she pleaded again. “I don’t want you to fix this or try to make it better.”

And so… like a mother who’s finally realized that, in all of her busy work trying to fill the needs of the child, she’s totally lost track of that child herself, I took a deep breath, sat metaphorically down on the floor, and let the child cry. And cry she did. For miles, while her mother drove. She just let it all out all over the car. All of her sadness over wanting to be held, wanting to be with her friends, wanting to go out and play, and wanting the future to feel more secure and reliable than it does right now. And then, when she was done, she gave a little shudder, crawled up into her mommy’s arms, and fell asleep (like the child in this video whose dad had the patience to sit with him and wait for the emotion to break).

Sometimes I forget to mother that little girl in me who still needs to be held. Sometimes I ignore her for months at a time, assuming she has all of her needs met and that she’s finally grown up and figured out how to be an adult. Sometimes I try to rush her out of the house like a weary parent who’s eager for the freedom of an empty nest.

But she’s not ready to be on her own yet, and she never will be. She’ll be with me until the end of my days, and every once in awhile, she’ll wait at that busy dinner table until there’s a pause in the conversation in which she can be heard. And some days, she might be more insistent than that and throw a temper tantrum in the middle of dinner.

This morning, I decided to give that little girl a bit more space. I photocopied some photos of me as a child, and then I incorporated those photos into my #messycovidartprocess. With messy hands, I held space for that little girl and we painted together. And then I took photos – first of my hand outstretched to her, and then of my hand protecting her from the storm.

As I took the photos, Brandi Carlile’s song for her daughter, Evangeline, started to play…

You’re nothing short of magical and beautiful to me
I would never hit the big time without you
So they can keep their treasure and their ties to the machine
Cause I am the mother of Evangeline

I sang the words to myself, changing the name to my own. And then I sat down with my journal and wrote a love letter to the little girl who just wanted to feel sad for a moment and not have all of the grown-ups at the table crush her sadness. And I promised I’d wait with her through the sadness and I wouldn’t try to fix her or change her. And I promised I wouldn’t let the grown-ups gaslight her for feeling the emotions she needs to feel.

Perhaps there’s a little child you’ve been neglecting too. Perhaps the grown-ups at your table are too busy trying to prove how grown-up they are to take the time to notice the needs of the child. Perhaps there are tears that need to flow, or perhaps the child needs some play time with paints and music.

What might happen, today, if you ask that child what they need? I invite you to take out your paints, or grab your journal and pen. Or maybe you need to visit a playground, or take a walk in the woods. It might take a bit of time, at first, to let the child know it’s safe enough to speak, especially if it’s been a long time since they’ve been heard, but have patience and wait. And quiet the grown-up voices that are convinced that by now you should have put childish ways behind you.

It’s okay to feel what you need to feel. It’s okay to hold space for the things that might scare you or make you feel weak. It’s okay to slow down enough to listen.

It might feel like, once you open the door for those emotions they’ll take over and you won’t be able to stop, but the beautiful thing about emotions is that they are always temporary. They come and then they go, and if they have a moment to be heard, they’ll pass through you more peacefully and leave less baggage behind when they go.


For more on how to hold space for yourself, check out my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership.

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