Why can’t I stop feeling sad?

I remember a young widow in her mid-30s I’ll call Laura. Her husband of five years had recently died suddenly of an aneurism that ruptured in his brain. The aneurism was one of those hidden time bombs that had gone undetected within an otherwise very healthy young man. He had been a varsity athlete both in high school and in college, and at the time of his death had been in vigorous good health. Suddenly, one day, he just collapsed. The medical people told Laura that he probably was dead before he hit the ground. His death was just that sudden with no apparent symptoms or physical warning. The shock of his death had been initially devastating to her, but six months later she was still profoundly grief-stricken, a state that manifested itself in her chronic feeling of being intensely sad. She somehow got through her days, but she was conscious of a edge of sadness to every moment of the day. She cared for their three year old son as best as she could but she said she barely felt all the joy he used to inspire in her. She said she now dragged herself to work, and just put in her hours without any real energy. Previously, she had loved her job, and had brought great energy and creativity to it. She said she regretted letting down her co-workers. Fortunately, they had shown great patience and understanding so far, but she knew that state of affairs could not continue indefinitely.

Most, if not all, people who are struggling to come to terms with the death of a spouse, especially if it was sudden and unexpected, experience a feeling of deep sadness. This is part of the natural process of grieving such a sudden and profound loss. At times, this feeling can be almost overwhelming! But this feeling of intense sadness is similar to any other intense feeling, such as anger or joy. Any feeling of ours, intense or otherwise, is not something we purposely cause. Rather, a feeling is something we discover within ourselves as it wells up within us. But, just as we cannot directly cause any feeling, so we cannot directly “get over” or get rid of any feeling.

So, how does one deal with a feeling of intense sadness? Even intense feelings usually diminish in time due to our natural human tendency, unless blocked, to tend toward healing. First of all, it is better and healthier to honestly acknowledge the intense feeling that to try to deny its existence, or the effect it is having on one’s life. One can try to deny an intense feeling directly (by claiming one is not sad when it is clear to any neutral observer that one js sad) or indirectly (by “shoulding’ on ourselves by claiming that one shouldn’t feel so sad or by claiming that one should be beyond feeling so sad by now)! One’s decision to acknowledge a feeling of intense sadness frees one to bring what internal strength one has to making positive life-decisions, one step at a time. In spite of a feeling of intense sadness, one need not be paralyzed from acting positively as one goes through the day. If one js reduced to paralysis of action over a significant period of time, then it is time to seek help, like talking to a close friend whose judgment one trusts or to a counselor who may be able to help break the emotionally paralyzing “log jam” preventing one from fully engaging in life’s important daily tasks. (Some readers may wonder why a priest such as I wouldn’t recommend first taking the whole thing to God jn prayer. Some may find that course of action helpful, but many others just aren’t “there” in their spiritual life journey.) The important thing is that one recognizes psychological and/or emotional paralysis as a cry for help from one’s inner self. The next thing is to begin looking, perhaps with the help and encouragement of others, for options for dealing with the paralysis.

Laura told me she had always prided herself on her ability to solve her own problems but she admitted that she just couldn’t seem to get a grip on her lengthy intense sadness. She said that she might be open to seeking a counselor to help her sort out her situation. She realized that, in the end, she was the one who would need to see how to move forward with her life, rather than any counselor who would provide her with a “magic” solution to her Uproblem”. I told Liz that her taking this step, as difficult as it seemed right now, might well be a helpful beginning to her seeking a healthy way forward into the rest of her life. She replied that she hoped so! In any case, she agreed with me that it was worth a try.