Stuck in sadness

You have probably heard about Cheryl Strayed.  Maybe you have read her memoir ‘Wild’, in which she recounts her solo walk along the eleven-hundred miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (the west coast of America), and all the events leading up to her journey from being lost to found, including her mother’s death from cancer at age 46.  If you haven’t read Wild, you should.

But you may not know about her ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column, now run as a podcast with Steven Almond. A compilation of the best letters answered by Cheryl Strayed has been published in her book ‘Tiny Beautiful Things.’

In the introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things, Steven Almond says:

There’s nothing you can tell Sugar that doesn’t strike her as beautiful and human.  Which is why men and women write to her about intimacies they can’t share with anyone else, unspeakable urges, insoluble grief… With each of her pieces… she performs the same miraculous act: she absorbs our stories.  She lets them inhabit her, and thinks about the stories they evoke from her own life.  She also recognises another, truer story beneath the one we generally offer the world, the stuff we can’t or won’t see, the evasions and delusions, the places where we’re simply stuck.

If you haven’t read Tiny Beautiful Things, you should.

This week I came across one letter answered by Cheryl Strayed and Steven Almond that I hadn’t heard or read before.  The sister of a listener - Stuck in Sadness - had died nearly four years ago:

She was my best friend and the best person I’ll ever know… I’m still completely grief stricken.  I miss her every day and waves of intense sadness strike often… I’ve seen two therapists, but it hasn’t helped because there’s nothing I can do to change my problem.  My sister is gone.

I have good parents and friends, but it isn’t enough.  There’s a hole in my heart.  My grief hasn’t lessened or gotten easier to deal with other years, it’s only become stronger and harder.  Sometimes I pretend my sister is still alive and I call and text her even though her phone is no longer in service… I honestly don’t know how to continue on in this way.  Everything feels wrong.  My heart aches.  Will things ever get better?

The advice given to Stuck in Sadness stopped me in my tracks, because in a way, I could hear myself asking this same question, and it felt like Cheryl Strayed and Steven Almond were speaking directly to me.  I know it’s going to be a piece that I will come back to in the depths of my struggles - it will be a reminder of how far I have come - and I so desperately want to share it with you. I tried to pick out bits only (so you didn’t have to read so much), but that didn’t work.  You need to read it in full:

Cheryl Strayed: I’m sorry for your loss, Stuck. I know precisely what you mean when you say that nothing can be done to change your problem, because the only thing that would change it would be for your sister to be alive again. There’s a stark truth in that. You’ll never stop being sad your sister died. You’ll always want her back. But the other stark truth is that you have to find a way to thrive again, even if your heart aches while doing it. In the years after my mother died, I had to accept the upsetting reality that I’d never get her back. You’d think that would have been clear from the moment she was gone — and of course, in a rational sense, it was — but grief isn’t rational. I think you haven’t truly let go of the idea that if you love and grieve your sister hard enough, she’ll be given back to you. You’re stuck in your sadness because it’s better than being stuck with the idea that you’ll have to live the rest of your life without her.

Steve Almond:  You don’t specify this in your letter, but I sense that your sister died relatively young, in her prime, and the 10 years she was sick constituted a significant portion of her lifetime. Part of your struggle, therefore, beyond having to live without your sister, is living with the feeling that you were the lucky sister, the healthy one. My hunch is that you’ve felt intense guilt about that for a long time, especially given your intimacy. So maybe the problem isn’t just that your sister is gone, Stuck, but that you’re still here. Guilt often takes the form of doomed loyalty: If you allow yourself to take pleasure in life that means you’re moving on, which is a betrayal of your sister. This may be why you feel these waves sadness when you’re at work or with friends — because you’re at the greatest risk of finding meaning and joy in these settings. It’s as if your guilt has installed an alarm system of sorrow. I wonder if it might help to think a bit more about what your sister would have wanted for you. Would she have wanted you to cling to her loss so ardently that you feel stuck? Or would she have wanted you to embrace life?

CS: What Steve and I know without having met your sister is that she surely wanted you to embrace life — even if that life is one that includes profound loss. This is why it’s so important to practice acceptance. Acceptance allows us to stop resisting what’s true — in your case, Stuck, that you’re tremendously sad that your sister died. What if you didn’t try to change that? What if you simply accepted that right now deep sorrow is your response to the loss of someone who was essential to you? What if you decided that the hole in your heart isn’t evidence that you’re stuck, but rather that your sister’s horrible death blew your life apart? What if you interpreted your grief not only as proof of your loss, but the power of your love? Your question about whether things will “get better” speaks directly to the backward values many of us have internalized about loss — that to heal we must turn away from sorrow and avoid negative emotions and at least appear to be moving on. But the way we truly move on isn’t to unburden ourselves from the weight of our grief; it’s to learn how to bear it and eventually carry it. It doesn’t happen in a day or a year. It happens over time. And it happens only after we accept that it can.

SA: The only honest answer we can give to your ultimate question (“Will things ever get better?”) is to turn it back on you. Will things ever get better, Stuck? Your sister’s illness and untimely death were events nobody could control. As Cheryl suggests, you will have to bear the weight of that loss for the rest of your life. But you do get to decide how to carry that weight. Can it be a form of ballast rather than a millstone? That’s what your sister was to you when she was alive. In a sense, she’s still alive, which is why you talk to her. Don’t stop doing that. Instead, ask her for help in answering the questions that have lodged so painfully in your heart. Is it O.K. that I survived? Can I let myself off the hook? Can I enjoy my life without letting you go? Listen to her answers, Stuck. I sense they’ll be the right ones. Emerging from a period of grieving doesn’t mean that you pitch grief overboard. It means, simply, that you create the space for a truth of equal weight: You aren’t betraying your beloved sister’s death by remaining fiercely, even joyously, alive — you’re honoring her life