I had mixed emotions after seeing Inside Out. I walked out of the theater feeling uncomfortably sad. The film is set in the mind of a young girl who grapples with joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. Now, I’m used to watching dramas (so I welcome the emotional roller coaster that film can take us on) but somehow Inside Out felt more personal than other movies.
It made me feel my emotions and, after all, who likes to feel sad?
But as the film Inside Out shows us, sadness is a part of this life. As much as we may want to escape feelings we do not enjoy, ignoring them does nothing but keep us from dealing with reality.
Ignoring sadness and grief keeps us from living in the present.
When we experience loss, it can be hard to think of anything else. It can be hard to remember the Resurrection when you’re standing before the Cross. So how can we as Christians better navigate that least favorite of emotions, sadness, and the process of grief?
Here are three things to keep in mind.
1. Let yourself feel
Nobody likes to feel uncomfortable. In fact, we go to great lengths to stay comfortable. It’s what keeps many of us from working out, from keeping a healthy diet, or from going to Confession. So instead of letting ourselves feel negative emotions (sadness, anger, frustration), we try to avoid them or to cover these feelings up with something else. This avoidance of reality can even cause people to turn to food, work, or an addictive behavior in an attempt to cover up the unwelcome feeling.
Unfortunately, this never works. Eventually the feelings bubble up again and we’re forced to work through them. We’re forced to feel. If we never let ourselves feel sad or grieve for our loss, we’ll stay in the first stage of grief (shock and denial) and never get to the last stage of acceptance.
I’ve found that the arts, since they put us to work doing something, are effective in helping us feel. At a recent concert I went to, the singer spoke about how writing music has been her greatest asset in working through her own emotions. And even Pete Docter, the writer and director of Inside Out, spoke of this as he accepted the Oscar for Best Animated Feature earlier this year. He said:
“Anyone out there who’s in junior high, high school, working it out, suffering — there are days you’re going to feel sad. You’re going to feel angry. You’re going to feel scared. That’s nothing you can choose. But you can make stuff. Make films. Draw. Write. It will make a world of difference.”
I was so taken by this statement, because I found it to be true in my own life. In moments of sadness or even moments of joy, I’ve taken to writing. Getting my thoughts and emotions out on paper let me get out of myself and help me sort through the emotions I don’t want to feel.
Not everyone is a writer. Not everyone is creative in the artistic sense of the word, but everyone can create. We all need to feel and then let that emotion out in a healthy way, avoiding one key danger.
2. Don’t fall into despair
When we grieve the loss of something or someone, the temptation is to think we’re alone. We might think we’re the only one that can understand what we feel in that moment, so we try to bear it alone. We can forget that in the Church, we help bear one another’s burdens and that it is Christ who gives us rest when we think we have to bear the weight of the world.
I’m reminded of a quote about despair by an important figure in modern Orthodox history named Elder Sophrony of Essex. He said, "Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea." As one Orthodox blogger commented on this quote, when we feel overwhelmed by our present circumstances, tea helps us rest and stay in the present moment. Taking time to step back and rest helps us to have a better vision of reality.
Despair, on the other hand, keeps us worrying about the past or projecting into the future. So despair has no room in the Christian life.
Staying connected to one another and to Christ keeps us grounded and in the moment. It keeps us from slipping into despair. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no place for mourning and sadness in the life of a Christian.
3. Mourn with hope
At every funeral service, we hear the words of Saint Paul about how to grieve as Christians (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). We grieve death, but there’s an element of hope behind our grief. At every baptism service, we hear that everyone who has been baptized into Christ gets to participate in His life (Romans 6:3-5). So when we die, we actually live because we are part of His risen Body.
As a Christian, I can have joy in the midst of suffering – even if I can’t feel happy just yet. Happiness is a feeling based on circumstances. But joy is about expectation; it’s an attitude that defies circumstances. It’s about being able to look past the present circumstances to see something greater to come.
We have hope because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and of our own resurrection. In the midst of our sadness, we can take hope in the fact even Jesus mourned death. He wept when He learned of His friend Lazarus’ death (John 11:35). He didn’t stand stoically and try to bear His pain without showing emotion. But neither did He get lost in waves of pain.
Jesus grieved the pain of separation from His friend and the sadness of death. And then He raised His friend from the dead.
If we are mourning our departed loved ones, having the joy of Christ reminds us to pray for them. This joy calls us to pray for the other members of our family who are dealing with their grief too. We pray for the departed, that their memory will be eternal, and that God will have mercy on those still living in this life.
In prayer, we are able to get out of our own heads and reach out to others. If we are having a hard time putting words to our grief, it’s possible other people are too. That’s why simply being present with our family and being there for them is an inseparable component of dealing with our own grief too.
My Uncle Art passed away two weeks ago. As I write this, I’m still coming to realize how I’m grieving his life and the relationship we weren’t able to cultivate. But when I remember to pray for him and to pray for my family, and when I try to be present with them, I see that I don’t bear my grief alone. As frustrating and painful as death is, I have hope in Christ.
It’s important that we allow ourselves to feel and to be aware of our own sadness and grief. Turning to Christ and to the Church guides our mourning and keeps us from falling into despair.
How do you handle sadness and grief? Have you found that the arts help you to mourn and to navigate loss? How does having a relationship with Jesus, rooted in the life of the Church, keep you from falling into despair?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
Maryia Paskovsky – “Tea Cup illustration2”