This past weekend was crazy and stressful. I experienced the death of my grandmother, and had been asked to perform the funeral. It was a tremendous honor to be able to do this for my family and in my times of preparation, I realized that we as a culture do not have many resources for dealing with deep emotions, or even a good understanding of what emotions mean.
One goes through a myriad of emotions when dealing with death. There is the innate sense of loneliness one feels when the reality sets in: this person is gone. It can happen any time, especially after we feel like we have “gotten over it” or “moved on.” Seeing their bed empty or the coffee cup they always used can bring back a flood of sadness when we least expect it. This loneliness is often coupled with many other emotions. We all feel sadness that life must invariably end. We regret not spending more time with the person or getting to know them, and often this leads to guilt. Yet not all emotions surrounding death are negative. In the case of my grandmother, who had suffered from a degenerative disease for several years before she passed, there was a sense of relief and peace that she struggles no more. Yet, I felt a sense of guilt that I was not sad, or at least I wasn’t as sad as I should be.
You see these emotions are normal. As all emotions, they can be best thought of as similar to the warning lights on the dashboard of a car. For those who have both normally functioning emotions and those of us with chemical differences, emotions are just feelings. They signal something deeper and often we need help to discover what is setting it off. When the “Check Engine” light pops up on the dashboard, most of us will have no idea what is wrong. The same is true with many emotions. If we just sit in our emotion and do not try to figure out the root cause, then it is like driving around with the “Check Engine” light. Eventually something will break.
In the case of funerals, the roots of our emotions are fairly easy to spot. A loved one died, so I feel sad. Pretty straightforward. This would be like checking the engine to find out you are low on oil. Simple problem, simple solution. Sometimes though, they are not as easy and require some thought and maybe the help of a trained professional. For example, in times of grief we may feel angry or numb. The roots are not as easy to spot and could stem from really anything. This is akin to checking the engine only to find that there is nothing physically wrong, and one would have to take apart the engine to discover the reason for the warning light.
Yet, why do we sit with our emotions flashing and signaling deep problems without seeking out someone to help? I suppose it is the same reason why many of us drive around with defective vehicles and glowing “Check Engine” lights. It seems easier. We can just put a piece of tape over the light so now we don’t have to see it anymore. We can mask our emotions with polite conversation and platitudes or self medicate with drugs and other addictions. Eventually the tape will fall off, or the underlying issue requiring the warning light will turn into a much more serious problem.
We may not all need professional assistance, but each and every one of us must be willing to dig deeper and not just let our emotions be when they could be signaling a serious problem. Instead of covering up the light, perhaps we should actually check the engine. (In my next article, I will further develop this foundation to those of us who may not have an easily identifiable cause for our emotions, those with central nervous system disorders.)