Light containers for heavy emotions

A friend of mine is going through a break-up right now. She feels in her heart this is the right thing to do for both of them, and she is feeling a deep grief over her loss. Her loss of life partner, as well as her loss of this chapter of her life, the neighborhood she lived in, the common friends and family they had.

She and her boyfriend are not processing their emotions at the same speed and with the same depth, as it often happens during break-ups. She is wanting to reflect together now on what they built and what they are losing, and she is feeling lonely when he doesn’t meet her there. So she ends up repressing and bottling up her sadness. He is telling her to be "lighter", which makes me wonder if he’s not ready to process his sadness yet, or if he ever fully will.

I’ve thought a lot about "lightness" recently. My friend's break-up and reading this post by Ellie Batchiyska made me think about it one more time.

I have been grieving a lot the last 8 years over my father’s death, moving to new countries twice, a painful break-up, sexual abuse, and childhood traumas. The heaviness of grief still comes and goes in waves, but I feel that I at least found a better relationship with it. I brought myself to a place in life, both physically and emotionally, where I was able to breath better and easier. I started feeling more above the water and "lighter" on a daily basis. I marveled in this and started asking “How can I have more of this light feeling?” As we learn in mindfulness, this is our basic human condition, we are constantly judging everything as “good” or “bad”. Once we have something “good” we simply want more of it, and once we have something “bad” we want to be rid of it as soon as possible.

I believe my quest for lightness, aside from a natural healing over time, has been this desire to have more of the “good” lightness and reject the “bad” heaviness. I was tired of being heavy all the time. I was tired of myself uttering words like loss, trauma, violence, grief all too often. People who love me have been telling me to be lighter too. They were not saying it directly to my face, but I could see in their eyes that they were thinking “When is she going to see that she is amazing and her life is amazing and stop spending so much time in grief?”

Are we light when we spend less time being heavy?

On one side I was wishing we would all welcome my heaviness more. On the other side, I was also asking myself when I was going to stop spending so much time in this. When was I going to see that my life and I are amazing? Did I have control of over how heavy vs. light I feel? How much of it was grief I needed to surrender to, and how much of it was about me actively replacing my negative thoughts with positive thoughts and actively moving from a deficit mindset to a surplus mindset?

Six months ago, I left my job at a tech startup, which gave me the chance to spend so much more time with myself during the day. I’ve learned more about myself during this time than I have learned when I was working full-time.

I’ve come to conclude that a lot of this lightness is up to me, indeed. I can choose to have a surplus mindset, almost any day, almost any time of day no matter how bad the day had started. There is always a way of seeing the glass half full. There is always a possibility to replace your negative thoughts with positive ones, even when you are deep in the midst of grief.

There are many tools you can use, affirmations, journaling, exercise, social support etc. that will enable you to see things from a rosier perspective. I use these tools, increasingly, and the more I use them, the faster I can go from a deficit mindset to a surplus mindset. Still, I often oscillate between a deficit mindset and a surplus mindset, and this is human. The task at hand is not to constantly stay on the surplus mindset. The task at hand is to increase the speed with which you go from a deficit mindset to a surplus mindset.

But sometimes, especially when the heavy emotions are very strong, you get the sense that it will be better for you to spend time with them even if they will hurt a lot in the moment. It's better to cry it out, it's better to mope around for a few hours, it's better to pity yourself.

Bringing yourself back to gratitude, back to a surplus mindset, is not and should not be about ignoring the parts of you grieving. The grieving parts still want to be and need to be acknowledged, allowed, loved.

Are we light when we hold our heaviness with lightness?

I felt that each time a wave of grief was overcoming me, I was going fully into its darkness. I started asking if I could change the way I experience the wave. Can I spend a "lighter" time with grief? Can I hold my heaviness with lightness? Can I make it easier on me? Can I contain it and hold it more mercifully?

Can we have light containers for heavy emotions?

The most obvious light container and the one I most often forget is touch. We are mammals and we exist in the presence of others. We need visceral connection, we need to be hugged, rocked, cuddled, caressed. The presence of a loving friend or family member who generously loves and listens to our grief can actually make the experience of grief much lighter. We are stronger together, or things are simply less heavy.

The other obvious light container is humor. One of the most joyful people I know is my aunt, despite all the heavy experiences she's had to endure in her life. What makes her light is her ability to crack a joke in the middle of all heavy conversations. This brings a momentary relief, a moment of pure ridiculousness, a brief pause from what's happening. I try to learn this from her and to crack a joke in the middle of my sad moment, even if I am alone and I am the only one to hear the joke.

Other light containers I often turn to are walking, dancing, exercising. Going for a walk with your grief, laying it out on the yoga mat or dancing it out will do you wonders. As Elizabeth Gilbert says about losing her life partner Raya, grief needs movement to express itself. When we don’t move, the heaviness sinks in and turns into a dark pit. But when we move, it can run through us and get to express itself more clearly.

The last light container I know, and the one I found much more accessible than touch, humor or moving, is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the practice of developing a loving acceptance of what is happening in the present moment even when it is heavy, difficult or unpleasant. Mindfulness teaches you body awareness (how your grief may express itself in your body) and resourcing (drawing strength from your happy moments). It teaches you that you are wiser, more nuanced and more resourceful than you thought within the own perimeters of your body. It lets you open your heart to all of your experiences without the labeling of “good” and “bad”.

Plus, meditation sets a perimeter of time. If you commit to connecting with your grief 10 min a day as Ellie Batchiyska describes, you can in fact disconnect from it if you need to for the rest of the day, and be at ease knowing when and how you will come back to it to listen to it.

Mindfulness is a muscle and like all muscles it needs to be used in order to be strong. You will see that the more you practice, the more you will find yourself able to bring this loving acceptance into your heavy moments.

What do you think makes a person light or heavy? What light containers do you have? What has helped you become lighter following heavy experiences? I would love to hear :)

If you enjoyed this post, please share it with others who may enjoy it too and sign up for my newsletter.

Photo by Paola Chaaya on Unsplash