The Curious Sadness of Endings

I’m not good at endings. They’re hard. They require saying goodbye to something or someone for – possibly – forever. How can I know if I’m done with something or someone forever? What if things change? What if they change? What if I change?

The thing about these questions is that by holding on to how the relationship is right now, and not allowing my sadness to flow, I’m not allowing the relationship to evolve and change as it would naturally. One universal truth is that nothing stays the same. Everything changes. When I try to hold on to how I perceive things to be, then I’m closing my eyes to what’s really happening, and trying to live in some imagined reality that no longer exists. When I don’t welcome sadness into my life, I’m effectively shutting myself down and creating a much more difficult and painful life ahead of me.

When I think about endings, I don’t think about sadness, I think about holding on, or looking away, or finding some way of distracting myself from feeling sad. I remember saying goodbye to my Aunt Susan at the airport. She’d come out for a visit each summer. At the beginning, she’d feel like a stranger, and then after two weeks of camping, visiting the coast, shopping, and living day-to-day with her, having to say goodbye and think I wouldn’t see her again for a whole year just ripped me up inside. I’d start tearing up just thinking about her leaving, and at the airport I’d open up into full-on racking sobs as I watched her walk onto the plane.

When I was little, I didn’t know there was any other option other than feeling sad and crying when she left. As I grew older, I saw other people’s ways of coping with sadness – my dad’s tight smile and sense of boredom or distraction, my mom’s overly bright smile and attempt to take care of everything else happening in that moment, and my brother’s absorption into his Gameboy.

I also learned that showing sadness wasn’t welcome in my family, and that it made my parents uncomfortable. I gradually learned to hold back my tears when Aunt Susan left, and became uncomfortable when other people cried or showed a lot of emotion in front of me. The thing is, as I learned to repress my sadness, I repressed all of my feelings. Everything felt muted, and intense emotion of any kind felt unsafe, since I didn’t have any experience with it. I began to go numb.

It’s been a process to learn to welcome my flowing sadness, one that started with finding role models who were good at channeling sadness in a healthy way. One woman I knew would tear up in the middle of a conversation when the topic touched on a sad point. I’d see the entire process of sadness flit across her face – the choking up, tears glistening at the corners of her eyes, the sigh of releasing it, then the rejuvenation that naturally bubbles up afterward, all in a moment. I used her as an example of how easy listening to and allowing healthy sadness could be. Now, whenever I feel uncomfortable with expressing my sadness, I remember her, and breathe, and let it flow.

In the years since I’ve begun listening to my sadness, I’ve learned that endings are just another   form of change. Welcoming change means welcoming sadness. As much as endings pain me, they’re powerful in their own right, and make space for new opportunities. In much the same way, once sadness has flowed through, there’s a sense of giddiness or relief or even happiness that bubbles up in the space left behind.