Can Small Sadnesses Make the World a Better Place?

My adult son just visited us for a couple of weeks. He grocery-shopped for us. He cooked his own breakfast when he awoke later than we did. He picked up the pooch from doggie-daycare.

During the day when I was seeing clients in my home office, the only way I could tell he existed was by hearing an occasional padded footstep or two as he gently moved about upstairs. When I did see him, he greeted me with a smile and a hug.

Three days ago, he loaded up his van with his quirky possessions, including his newly purchased used harpsichord. Youthful fitness shone on his sweaty skin as he stashed the final box of books and climbed up to the driver’s seat.

Set for his next big adventure—living near some artistic friends from college in the Hudson Valley—he sat poised to drive away from my Austin, Texas home to live far away once again

Sweat dribbled down my spine and soaked through my dress as I stood next to the van in the sweltering Texas heat while he fiddled with his iPhone charger and battery-powered fans. (Driving cross-country in the summer with no A/C. Yikes!)

Though hot and tired, I watched him being unselfconsciously him. I silently invited his one-of-a-kind essence to burrow itself deeply into my mom-heart, and savored the delicious yet bittersweet moment.

Smiles. Cheers. Tears on both sides.

A sturdy, sweaty hug.

Our embrace held a multitude:

  • a man confident and ready for a solo cross-country drive,
  • a boy struggling to tear himself away from the yummy warmth of home,
  • a mom exuberantly cheering on her adventurous, competent offspring, and
  • a mommy whose guts were ripped out as her only child left once again.

“Have fun! I know you’ll do great! … I’ll miss you!”

“Thanks! I’ll miss you too!”

A few more blinked-back tears.

Then he drove away


Today is quiet. Too quiet.

While I’m typing this sentence, I anticipate footsteps above my head and there are none. When I go to the kitchen to make lunch, there’s no sing-song hello while my son scrambles late-breakfast eggs. When I finish writing this evening, I won’t feel Bach-fugue-piano-practice vibrating the floor beneath my feet.

The silence teems with absence.

My throat tightens. My chest feels heavy. Unbidden tears roll down my cheeks.

My day doesn’t screech to a halt, and I’m not debilitated. I simply feel an ache that arises to fit the circumstances: I miss that boy.

My feelings move through more easily when I understand what emotion my tears express:

Bereft = deprived of something; lacking something needed or expected.

That’s it—my tears express bereftness. With clarity, a strong wave of natural missing and yearning moves through. I cry harder, and then I’m finished.

Blowing my nose and wiping my tears, I feel melancholy but okay. My throat is clear and my chest expands.

Then more tears come, this time pouring out of the expansiveness in my chest.

These tears express a different sort of ache.

Grateful = deeply appreciative of benefits received; thankful.

Once more, clarity ushers in a fullness of emotional expression. Tears that flow and have meaning.

All at once I am:

  • grateful that my bereftness is not of tragedy, that my son has left in vigorous pursuit of passion,
  • grateful that my son likes to visit and hates to leave,
  • grateful that I love my life, whether he’s here sharing daily life or out there telling me about his adventures,
  • grateful that I’ve cultivated the capacity to feel invigorated by all my emotions.

More nose-blowing. More tear-wiping.

With clear mind and full heart, I begin typing again with raw and enlivened attention.


I’m fortunate because when my husband comes home tonight, I’ll tell him about my bereftness and he’ll hug me while I cry some more. He’ll share his father-version of missing a son.

Then we’ll share dinner and conversation, just the two of us, missing our son’s enthusiastic appreciation of our best-on-the-planet-cooking.

And we will be okay.

Sharing our bereft-and-grateful emotions allows them to move through and enrich our lives. Yes—enrich our lives.

Sometimes pain, like this bereftness lets us know that we’re alive. That we’ve been lucky enough to receive something so wonderful that we miss it when it’s gone. Bereftness, experienced, yields gratitude and expansion. That’s how emotions work when they are allowed to be.


Many people I come into contact with simply don’t get to share or even feel this kind of bereftness, because our culture disparages sadness in all its forms. Everywhere I turn, I read about one technique after another for “mastering sadness,” “conquering grief,” or “inoculating oneself against feeling bad about misfortunes.”

Somehow feeling sad has become equated with being unproductive or weak. As if being contemplative instead of productive for a minute is dangerous. (It’s not. It’s healthy.) As if being in need of support by another is silly. (It’s not. It’s a wired-in human need.)

Many people think there’s something wrong with them for feeling sad, so they become anxious and don’t even realize they’re simply sad.

Or they distract themselves because it’s silly to feel sad over something so small, and the sadness goes underground.

Or they feel alone with their bereft feelings, ashamed of sharing them with anyone, so the sadness grows or morphs into depression.

If we can’t turn to each other in times of non-tragic, fleeting sadness like the bereftness I felt upon my son’s departure, it’s no wonder we struggle so with grief when big losses happen. If we begin to get comfortable with our smaller, non-tragic sadnesses, we’ll be better able to handle the big ones when they come along.

Learning how to feel our feelings is what helps us bear hard times.

Not building some resilience muscle that sustains an illusion that we can become impervious to pain.

Healthy expressions of sadness move the sadness through us, rather than leaving it stuck in our bodies. Sadness that moves generates healing, rejuvenation, and growth. The natural adaptive feeling that emerges from sadness expressed is gratitude.

Our world could use more of these qualities.

So I share my story with you to grant you permission to acknowledge and make room for your life’s natural sadnesses, large and small. I invite you to contribute to a healthier world by expressing your own emotions…


What kinds of small or large life circumstances make you feel bereft? Do you have ways to express your sadnesses when they arise? Do you have anyone to help you with these feelings?