Everybody has a hobby, right? Some folks run marathons, others read mysteries or climb mountains, twee folks go antiquing on the weekends. Me? I emote. It’s sort of my thing. I’m damn good at it, too.
I’m so good at it, my friends, that I opted to make a career out of it. In my mid-20s, after years of friends and strangers alike telling me their problems, confiding in me easily, I opted to get a Master’s degree is social work (the extremely versatile, albeit unprofitable MSW) and make emotions my life work. That was one of the best choices I’ve ever made, as it harnessed a natural talent and paired it with education and training.
Much to my surprise, my clinical focus came to be on older adults and the hard work of aging. I helped older adults talk about the difficulties and indignities of getting older, the insults of a body and mind that fail you slowly (or quickly), the prospect of growing limitations and dependence, how a family copes with a matriarch and patriarch who are aging and changing, and the grief and sadness that abound with the imminent prospect of death.
It was heady, amazing work and I loved it. I was damn good at it, too. I miss it.
Some of the work I did was in hospice, bereavement, and caregiving. That is no longer a good line of work for me after my daughter’s death. You see, when you are working with a 90 year old who is staring death in the eye and their 60-65 year old children who are traumatized with the prospect of losing mom or dad, you need empathy for them. All of them. They deserve that.
Losing a four year old daughter has shifted my perspective so completely that I can no longer, at least right now, muster up the necessary empathy to feel what a therapist needs to feel when a 90 year old dies or for their survivors. I feel sadness, yes, because anytime a light goes out it is sad, but I currently lack the empathy or patience to help people process the emotions attached to the death of an older person. I no longer have the tools to sit across from a 65 year old daughter sobbing over her mother’s death, legitimately worried that she will not be able to cope.
Unpretty and unsympathetic as it is, folks, it is my truth.
One thing I have learned in my personal and professional life related to emotions is that we all have them. Some of us feel them deeply, some of us stuff them completely, some of us actively run the other direction from them, worried that emotions are somehow frivolous, dangerous, or unnecessary. Some of us think of emotions as something you “get through” or resolve in order to get back to the business of living.
I know better.
For me, emotions are as present as the sky, as necessary as oxygen. Not all of us operate that way and I completely get what an exhaustive prospect that is for some. My husband is not terribly emotional, though he is extremely kind and generous and sensitive. We’re a good fit that way.
Emotions are like a pair of eyeglasses that I rely on to see. They make things clearer or blurrier, they can make people look good, or just be a really bad fit. They are, and always have been — even as a wee, young girl — my constant companion.
That is why I was surprised yesterday when I wrote a quick Facebook status update about being sad now that Mother’s Day nears. For me, Mother’s Day is complicated on every front. My Mom died in 2005, my daughter died in 2009, and this year I will be celebrating Mother’s Day with a baby that has a second mother, his birth mother. I imagine the pain she too must feel as the day nears, and yes, feel some guilt attached to that pain.
It’s complicated, yo.
So I do what I do and popped off a status update. Early in the resulting thread, a longtime reader and supporter gently told me that it wasn’t fair to my sons to feel sadness. Huh. Okay. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and responded that I didn’t see the connection — that my sadness in no way prevented me from feeling happy for their presence or experiencing the joy they bring me daily. I was simply sad. She then responded that she totally understood, of course, but that I needed to be happy and understand all the blessings in my life.
If only emotions worked that way. Be happy! Oh, okay, I get it now, thank you — I wish I had thought of that sooner!
Sarcasm aside, it grates on me that someone suggested my legitimate sadness was in some way harming my two surviving children. I CHOOSE HOPE, dammit! I work my emotional a$$ off to ensure that my burden of grief does not become my children’s burden of grief.
Long story short, emotions are not mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible, and most likely probable, that any any given moment we are feeling a conflicting jumble of feelings. Happy that Dad’s suffering is over, sad that he is dead. Grateful for my child’s growing independence, lonely that he/she no longer needs me in the same way. Terrified to get that pink slip, relieved to no longer have to deal with that madman boss.
To be sad and to state that sadness is okay. To be happy and to state that happiness is okay. But often times, it is more complicated than just the black and white of happy and sad. To be both happy and sad, empty and fulfilled, resentful and grateful simultaneously is the stuff of life, folks.
One of the most lasting lessons I learned from Donna was to feel my emotions fully and completely — really feel those suckers, you know? — and then to move on. To feel the fear attached to a needle poke, to cry about it, whimper a little, to smile afterwards, to show the scary nurse the door when she was done, and thank her for that needle poke, and then to play and get on with the day.
Feel your feelings. Feel all your feelings. Scary as that is, emotions are a beautiful, complicated part of being a human being. And they don’t have to be so scary or sanitized.
Hey! May is Mental Health Awareness Month! If you want to educate yourself and learn more, let Moms Who Drink and Swear teach you! Visit her site here.