A couple of weeks ago after putting my son to bed, I had an impromptu get-together at my home with two mama friends I love and admire. We sat and talked for hours, and it was the best kind of talking—full of laughter, real intimacy, and vulnerability.
I shared with them that I had been feeling low lately. My sweet father-in-law had passed away earlier in the summer, and a cascade of changes and the accompanying feelings seemed to be flowing through our family.
My beautiful friends shared about how they have been managing their own private, raw heartbreaks—living with illnesses in a beloved child and a beloved parent. Their sharing and their struggles cracked my heart right open.
Every family has its own heartbreaks, sooner or later.
But how to meet and manage the pain and sadness of these times without shutting down is a whole other story. And having kids complicates how (or if) we are able to work with it. It also raises questions about how much (or whether) to share it with our children.
I don’t have all the answers to these challenges. But I thought I’d share some insights that have come to me over the summer while I’ve been sitting with my own heartbreak, and learning from my friends.
A wonderful teacher of mine offers a simple yet powerful practice for dealing with painful feelings—sadness, grief, fear, and more—that I have turned to many times this past summer.
That practice is simply to include the feeling as part of your experience.
But the important thing here is to include it as a simple feeling, and not as an identity or fixed state of being. It’s a feeling—one of many throughout the day—not How You Are.
If you’re anything like me, I would guess that when a painful feeling arises, you attempt to 1) push it away (by not thinking about or feeling it, watching TV, etc.); 2) pretend it's not there; 3) feel bad about even having it; or 4) try to figure out what is wrong with you for feeling as you do. Maybe you do something slightly different, but the whole focus is usually on saying a big NO to the feeling.
This practice aims to do just the opposite.
When I open to a painful feeling, and include it as one part of my larger experience, I feel an enormous sense of relief. Often the tears flow, and I’m able to move through some of the stuck parts of the feeling. Sometimes I have an insight about what is behind it, or what it needs.
It shifts, and in the tiny space that is made by that shift, something else has room to flow in.
If opening to or including a painful feeling feels like too much, you can take a smaller step in that direction by gently noticing the presence of the feeling, even for a moment, before you turn away. Even a sliver of willingness can add some spaciousness to the experience of the feeling.
One of the things that struck me about my wise friends is that, rather than shutting down and shutting up about their pain (as so many of us were taught), they actively shared with close friends what they were struggling with.
I don’t mean that they called up any old person in their contact list and laid it out. In fact, you might have noticed that sometimes that can make us feel more vulnerable—it does me, anyway.
But in the right moments, with other caring, thoughtful people who can hold space and stay open to the heartbreak, the sharing can lift our burden—even if only slightly.
What I notice when I share with the right people is that I immediately reestablish my connection to others—not just my close others, but to all those who hurt. I feel the bittersweetness of the fact that, in being connected to others who suffer, I am part of a very real human family. This can directly counteract my experience of being lost and alone in my painful feelings.
I also feel a deep gratitude for this connectedness, and for my good fortune in having such loving, empathetic souls to lean on. The gratitude makes my heart feel less heavy.
Perhaps you also have one or two close others you could share with, who can remind you that you are not alone in your pain, and who can help you hold it.
Show it (sometimes)
Have you ever noticed that your kids pick up on so much that you don’t say? Some kids seem more attuned to the unspoken than others, but all kids absorb what we’re feeling even if we never say it in words.
When we’re living with sadness or other painful feelings, we can be tempted to shield our kids from it to avoid burdening them with our feelings or somehow putting them in the position of parenting us. Generally I support these instincts, as I feel that our kids need to rest in the knowledge that we’ve got things covered. It gives them the space they need to be kids.
But if we totally shield our kids from our painful feelings, we rob them of the opportunity to learn about one of the aspects of what it means to be human in this life.
When we hide all of our sorrow, we can subtly send the message that we are not ok with sadness or other painful feelings. It can be a quick leap from there to assuming that their painful feelings also aren’t welcome in our home. Many adults I know are familiar with this experience from their own childhoods—maybe you are too.
And, when we cut ourselves off from our tenderness when it feels painful, it can diminish our ability to access our tender heart in moments of joy, empathy, and gratitude.
So let your kids see your sadness, at least a little bit. Be sure to talk about your feelings, and keep them in context as feelings—they come and go for you just as they do for your children. Kids can understand this idea because they live it every day.
How do you manage your painful feelings when you parent? Please share below in the comments; I’d love to hear your thoughts.