Finding the Joy in Sorrow

Colorful ribbons of sad music flowing from a piano.


Music can reach us in a way that words alone cannot.

My sister died last May. The family knew her death was imminent, but we hoped that she’d make it, at least, to her 70 birthday in June. The cancer, though, wouldn’t wait.

Although expected, the news of her death toppled me, and I fell to the floor, where I lay keening for some time. But after the initial rush of tears slowed, I needed to work on my about-to-be-published book and continue with my day. I slipped on a cloak of numbness and put my grief on the back burner.

A month later, working in the garden, The Wailin’ Jennys’ version of “By Way of Sorrow” came through my earbuds. The melody and lyrics slipped a shawl of comfort and compassion around me, and my tears gushed forth. I kept hitting rewind so I could continue to sob. My numbness melted away, and after 15 minutes, new feelings surfaced. I found, hidden amid the sorrow, a pearl of joy. I knew I loved my sister deeply as my heart filled with gratitude.

Sad Music

Beautiful music and art can carry us through sadness and profound loss with a redemptive power. Sad, even tragic-sounding music offers a paradoxical gift—a pleasure often living in their beautiful poignancy. Brain scientists even have a word for this phenomenon: “pleasurable sadness.”

Often, music can reach us in a way that words alone cannot. Choral composer Jake Runestad wrote the piece “Please Stay” as a message to those contemplating suicide. At the end of the composition, chorus members speak words of encouragement taken from the writings of survivors. The piece moved me, as did the comments that followed the YouTube video. One person wrote, “My choir teacher told me to promise I would listen to this tonight. I did. And it saved me for one more night.” Listeners left similar remarks after a video of Peter Gabriel’s megahit, “Don’t Give Up.”

A talk is less likely to have that kind of impact. Songs lure us into listening when we are feeling broken so that we can hear the lesson: “No matter what you are feeling, you are not alone.” Sadness and depression can be devastating. Often, they leave us feeling cut off from others. Vivek Murthy, the 21st Surgeon General of the United States, writes about the epidemic of loneliness in this country, isolating many. Songs like “Don’t Give Up” remind those struggling, “Others have faced similar pain. You’re OK and you’ll make it through.”

Visual art can reach us in similar ways. I was spellbound when I viewed Käthe Kollwitz’s statue in Berlin, “Mother with Her Dead Son.” Without needing words, the work speaks to the heartbreak of war and a mother’s devastation. My experience of the piece left me sad but connected to all who have endured great loss or had their lives torn apart by war. I felt compassion for our great human community.

Great art invites us to view or hear it with all our emotions without judging ourselves for what we are feeling. Others have experienced similar, complicated feelings. Knowing that may allow us to reframe our circumstances and find meaning even in the worst times.

Holding Paradox

Beauty is always available to us, shining through both joy and sorrow. Like light and darkness, or happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow live as polarities or paradoxes—opposites that always come together. Try to eliminate or suppress one side of a polarity, like sorrow, at your peril.

In this country, many act as if they can make happiness “win out” over sadness. The result can lead to a false universe like that in the movie Pleasantville, where negative emotions were suppressed and the world went colorless. Our current cultural bent toward promoting happiness without welcoming sadness, grief, loss, or melancholy can be damaging. It compounds the already complicated feelings of those who are unhappy by suggesting that they are failures, defective because of their sadness.

We aren’t meant to always be happy or sad. Sometimes, we may need to turn around our mood by putting on an upbeat song when we’re blue. Who can resist the cheery song “Happy” or the viral video showing people around the globe dancing to its beat? “Happy” almost always brings me to my feet and gives me another mood enhancer—movement and dancing.

Feelings are designed to flow. Finding the beauty in the sad as well as the glad keeps us from being stuck in any one emotion.

Becoming a Maker

By creating beauty, we gain a way to use our experiences as fodder for our creative expression. Artists, composers, writers, and choreographers have channeled painful feelings into pieces of great beauty. We can use all our feelings when we create.

We don’t need to build masterpieces to take pleasure in the process of expressing ourselves.

For example, I like to improvise sounds when I’m stressed or agitated. Often, I hum. Even five minutes of humming can reset my body’s nervous system and decrease my anxiety. My vagus nerve, which regulates my parasympathetic nervous system and helps me rest and relax, loves it when I hum.

I also sing. There’s no sorrow too big or grief too deep for the voice to hold. Whether sad, angry, depressed, listless, or ecstatic, I can turn my feelings into sound. Who cares whether I sound good when singing has so many benefits, such as deeper breathing, relaxation, and stimulation for my imagination? When we raise our voices, different emotions can flow naturally through us. If we’re singing in a group, we benefit from social interaction.

Writing stories about our lives is another way to heal ourselves, as I discovered in writing my book. Dr. James Pennebaker and others have documented the power of writing about our experiences. No matter what trauma we have experienced, journaling about it allows us to become a witness to our lives and reshape our stories about the past. Putting our thoughts on paper can be healing even if we never show anyone what we write. Sharing our stories, though, can be a way of connecting our experiences to those of others.

Making art can also be transformative when we give ourselves space to express what we carry within. Whether we paint detailed oil landscapes or roll out clay worms, we invite our creative spirit to join us and help us channel difficult emotions into generative activity.

This past summer, I discovered the power of creating art. Over a period of five months, I lost eight friends, including a sister-in-law. Not surprisingly, I didn’t feel called to socialize or be part of large gatherings. Instead, my studio beckoned, and I found a sanctuary at my art table. There, I let myself be enchanted by the flow of paint and fascinated by colors, lines, marks, and shapes.

Often, two hours in the studio passed in a flash, and I emerged restored. I still missed my sister, sister-in-law, and others. Yet, in creating some small thing of beauty, I found a sense of agency and stayed out of depression.

Beauty Brings Hope

When we find beauty, whether in a piece of  music, an artistic masterpiece, a fallen leaf, or our creations, we touch into something bigger. Beauty can transport us to a deep part of ourselves where we may connect to the eternal and discover an ember of hope at the heart of whatever we’re facing. In that hope, joy and sorrow can live together. Realizing that hope, we gain the courage to face a challenging world.

Sally Jean Fox is the author of Meeting the Muse after Midlife: A Journey to Meaning, Creativity, and Joy and is a creativity and transitions coach. She lives on Vashon Island, Wash..

Read more on 3rd Act stories on the bittersweetness of aging:

Jennifer James on the Bittersweet Reality of Being 80—James shares how the “Acceptance of who we are and how we have lived … is the supreme gift of aging that eliminates any fear of death. Examining regrets, choices, fixing what you can, making amends when you can, opens the door to a special kind of peace of mind.” Read more.

Book Review: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole—Cain weaves stories from her own life—some heartbreaking, some funny, all of them poignant—throughout the book, which gives Bittersweet an intimacy and feeling of deep honesty.

Aging is Bittersweet … It Giveth and Taketh Away—”Fact is, longevity takes its toll on all of us and it manifests in many unpleasant and painful ways. But, when we find ourselves griping about our various age-related woes, all it takes is for someone to say, “Hey, consider the alternative,” and that’s it. End of discussion. ” Read more.

Bittersweet Moments—Past, Present, Future: Life is filled with bittersweet moments, times of pleasure that at the same time may be accompanied by suffering or regret. Although we may be more aware of such occasions as we get older, I am convinced that since we are constantly aging, we will experience many such moments in each decade of life.

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