Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sadness and Grief

None of us want to be sad. We would much rather be happy and filled with laughter than be weighed down with tears. Yet, as we live we will face losses, difficulties and hardships that fill us with tears. When those times come we may wonder, why does God allow such sorrow? Why are sadness and grief part of life? Wouldn’t life be much better without them?

Recently I have been reading The Book of Joy, a collaborative book by The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams. It is a book filled with wisdom. At several points they have the discussion of how it is possible to have joy even in the midst of hardship. In a chapter on Sadness and Grief, the Archbishop says, “We don’t really get close to others if our relationship is made up of unending hunky-dory-ness. It is the hard times, the painful times, the sadness and the grief that knit us more closely together.”

Abrams then cites a scientific study by Joseph Forgas that shows that mild sadness actually makes people more generous, increases our empathy and even helps us to have better memory. (As an aside, the researcher also notes this is not the same as depression where a person often shuts themselves off from social relationships.)  It seems that mild sadness and even tears serve to connect us as human beings.

As I personally think about that, I can think of many situations where that has been true. Whether it is in the sharing of a powerful moment of love as a person is dying, or the hugs of family and friends or a funeral, or the prayers of a church member when heartache is evident. All of these serve to deepen our relationships, not just with family but with humanity in general.

The challenge in times of sadness, the Dalai Lama reminds us, is not to focus on ourselves – doing that has the potential to lead us into despair and depression – rather we must “use it as motivation and to generate a deeper sense of purpose. When my teacher passed away, I used to think that now I have even more responsibility to fulfill his wishes, so my sadness translated into more enthusiasm, more determination.”

Essentially what the Dalai Lama is doing is using his love for his teacher to continue influencing his life. As I work with families around funerals, I always ask what the deceased taught them. What were their biggest lessons? What did they want you to know about life? I do that so that I can understand what was at the person’s heart, and what was most important to them, but I now understand that those questions also help the grieving family to continue their loved one’s legacy, move their sadness into concrete action and purpose toward the future.

So although none of us want to be sad, sadness can be a great gift. It can help us to be more compassionate, it can deepen our relationships, and it can be a motivator for us to do what is most important in life. This doesn’t explain why God allows us to cry, but it does show that God can very much work through our sadness for greater good.

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