Today, while looking for a birthday card for a friend, I accidentally picked one for a sister.
Almost as if stung, I quickly put it back. I don’t buy cards for a sister anymore. My only sister died almost two decades ago, and I always feel a bit resentful when I realize, once again, that I have no need of a sister card. For a moment, I felt just a bit off-kilter, like something wasn’t right.
I call these episodes “remembered sadness.”
They are like a little slice of grief that normally is buried in the depths of my heart but suddenly breaks free for a short time. I carefully reel it back in and trap it once again, so I can move on with my day.
The grief literature reminds us that while death ends a life, it does not end the relationship that existed with a loved one. It also tells us that grief is a process that is never quite finished. Instead, it is a series of new lived experiences without the loved one present. We may be somewhat prepared for anniversary reactions which occur on significant days like birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, but little griefs can come as a surprise years after the loss.
To be fair, there are happy events that I also recall, a song, a movie, or a visit to a special place, that can bring a smile or a feeling of gratitude that we had that time together. Many of these are no longer accompanied by sadness but have transitioned into nice memories, and I am thankful for each of them.
So, why do these small episodes of grief still exist?
For me, they often represent some unfairness. It’s not necessarily the issue of the loss, I feel like I have made peace with that. Instead, it is more about how unfair it seems that I don’t get to grow old with my sister or that she didn’t get to reach some of life’s milestones. Other times, a remembered sadness is linked to feelings of regret or guilt, to something I didn’t say or something I wish I had done. They are reminders that we don’t always get the chance to right a wrong or to express our feelings about a loved one and what they meant to us.
When viewed in this way, perhaps my remembered sadness is actually a small gift, a lesson about living each day fully, and fully present, filled with love and compassion and caring.
Or perhaps my remembered sadness gives me a short contact with my sister, reminding me of the continuing bond between us. I am lucky to have had her in my life as long as I did, and, for just a few seconds, the sister birthday card gives me a moment of her presence. That idea makes me smile as I move on to the category of cards I was seeking.
The example above is based on the loss of a loved one, but individuals may experience a remembered sadness for many other types of loss. Even events such as losing a job or experiencing a significant failure at work or with a client can be triggered and recalled with surprising clarity.
This remembered sadness may be tinged with embarrassment, regret, ridicule, anger, or feelings of inadequacy.
When this occurs, identify the memory for what it is and spend a few moments with the feelings that surround it. Then consciously reframe that sadness into a life lesson, an event that you successfully dealt with and put behind you, or even as a springboard for professional growth. Don’t let it linger or ruin your mood or day.
Instead, move on with positivity.