I’m Both Happy And Sad
An important reminder that feelings are not mutually exclusive.
A year ago, my Dad died rather tragically. Losing him made me really, really sad. I’m still very sad. And I don’t think there will ever be a day in my life where I won’t be sad about him not being here anymore. For me, every day is just one in which he’s missing.
But being sad doesn’t mean I’m not happy.
Some people see my sadness and instantly conclude I’m depressed, stuck, or letting this “ruin” me. They implore me to be happy, move on, and let it go. They kindly advise me to be selective in whom I speak to about my grief, out of fear that I’ll get my sad all over everyone – as though pain is a contagion and addressing it offers a fertile breeding ground.
Others see my joy and forget that I’m sad, they don’t realize I’m still grieving his death. They act as though it shouldn’t be looping around in my head on repeat. As though it’s strange to keep falling into the hole he left in his wake. They’re surprised to learn I’m still missing him, I’m still grappling with his loss, and I’m still pretty upset about it.
And so my ample frustration is the impetus for this article. Maybe this will help you to understand grief, or life, a little better. Perhaps it’ll help you support a friend in need. And hopefully, it’ll give you more leeway with approaching your own complicated emotions, because sadly none of us are immune to facing tragedy and pain.
Feelings are not mutually exclusive.
First of all, feelings can survive side by side, in tandem, without competing. Now I love all-or-nothing thinking as much as anyone else (I mean why wouldn’t you, it feels so safe), but your feelings, like your life, is made up of shades of grey. And while it’s reasonable to want to grasp onto the good feelings while also pushing aside the uncomfortable ones, Brené Brown gets it right when she says you can’t selectively numb your emotions.
You either feel it all, or you shut the door to your feelings altogether.
Just as feelings aren’t in and of themselves good or bad, people aren’t all happy or just sad. It’s the meaning you ascribe to your emotions that allows you to classify them as sentiments you allow or ones you deny. You don’t tell people to get over the happy times, so why do you justify it when addressing the hard times?
How do I explain the fact that I am both sad and happy? Instead of living in the realm of either/or, I am now entertaining its rival, the world of both/and. I am both happy and sad, and that’s okay. Here are some examples of other instances where this is used: This is both your responsibility and a consequence of your upbringing; she is both proud of her successes and disappointed in her failures; he is both excited to be a parent and afraid he won’t do it right. Do you catch my drift?
Life is complex. You can feel afraid, mad, surprised, excited, and overwhelmed on the same day, or in the same hour. So why is it that if I allude to still being sad, it’s instantly assumed that sad is all I am? As though this admission reduces me to that one feeling, and prevents me from being as multifaceted as our entire range of human emotions. As though sadness is a deep well of darkness ready to pull me under at any instance, a hole from which I can never escape.
Happiness is not the only measure of health.
Another important point I have to make is that you can be mentally and emotionally healthy, and still feel very sad in the presence of loss. (For the record, I’m pretty sure I got this idea from Megan Devine; if not, check her out anyway because she’s great.) In any case, I’d argue that in the face of tragedy, feeling sad would qualify as a very healthy, appropriate response. Mental health is about welcoming a whole slew of emotions, regardless of whether they feel good or bad, and recognizing that they’re normal and human and need tending to.
You can be smiling and yet still feel utterly and thoroughly unwell. Or be so deep in the well of denial that you’re quickly building a home out of things you have yet to deal with. You may be keeping yourself busy in a conscious or subconscious attempt at not feeling anything. Or you may continue living your life as though nothing is painful, only to walk right into a wall of unprocessed baggage years later.
People attribute so much meaning and power to being “happy” that the act of feeling anything else somehow suggests you’re doing things wrong. We love our happiness so much that we often correlate unhappiness to illness, disease, and death. It acts as a false sense of safety, separating you from others — and it also assumes you have complete control over your life, experiences, and emotional responses. Because it’s so much easier to draw that line than acknowledge you’re vulnerable and that nothing you do, say, or feel will guarantee your health and longevity.
Sadness isn’t all bad.
Being sad that someone died, especially if their death was tragic, sudden or unexpected, is laden with nuance. For instance, I miss all the time I spent with my Dad, and I’m sad for all the future times I’ll never get to have. I love to talk about him or retell old stories because it keeps a part of him alive in the physical realm. If grief is the manifestation of love in response to a person who’s no longer here, then grieving their loss is a testament to loving someone deeply.
But sadness is also am an important part of accepting and working through the loss, as well as all the trauma associated. “Sadness helps you to remember, rather than forget,” says Dr. Mary C. Lamia, author, and clinical psychologist. “It promotes personal reflection following a loss that is important to you, and turns your attention inward in a way that can promote resignation and acceptance.”
Sadness also puts things into perspective. It helps me to realize that there’s more to life than my job, the state of my finances or my various accolades. Life is about being present and showing up for the people you love. It’s about being satisfied with the beauty of small moments, instead of escaping reality and always seeking the next big thing.
And moving forward doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten what’s happened, it means you’ve accepted it — which requires you to feel the immensity of the loss and work your way through it.
When you shame another person for feeling sad — when you tell them to move on and let it go — you’re projecting your own unresolved emotions onto the situation. You’re asking them to make you feel better so that you don’t have to acknowledge their uncomfortable feelings and how these experiences add dissonance to your reality.
Instead of telling the other person that they shouldn’t feel sad, perhaps ask yourself why you’re triggered by someone else’s sadness. Are you avoiding your own feelings, or denying yourself the right to grieve? Are you afraid that if you let sadness in, it’ll overtake you? Were you not allowed to express a range of difficult emotions as a child? Were you shamed for struggling emotionally?
When someone owns their emotions, they are displaying a powerful act of self-courage.
They’re saying “I feel this way even if you don’t understand it, or want me to admit it.” And they aren’t allowing their feelings to define them – it’s just what they’re feeling. So I argue, why don’t we celebrate this bravery, instead of trying to fix something that’s not a problem in the first place? Why don’t we allow people to feel sad and happy, instead of only witnessing their feelings when it’s convenient for us? Why can’t we accept that not everything is going to be pleasant in life, and that doesn’t mean things aren’t going precisely as they should be?