i know a thing about sadness

When I was a kid, my parents read me a story from a Frog & Toad collection. It was one in which one of the two main characters makes a list of things he has to do that day and his list blows away in the wind. He's in distress, devastated and confused and not sure what else he had to do that day. As a small child, probably not much older than Ethan, this caused me to burst into tears. (This was probably also the first warning sign I was going to be quite familiar with anxiety -- my heart sure felt that poor frog's anxious little heart deeply.) Even as an adult, I can't see the cover of that storybook collection without getting goosebumps and remembering the emotional trauma that a silly story about two amphibians caused me. I mean, he was so sad! The same can be said for Puff The Magic Dragon, a song my dad brought home one day on cassette tape for me to listen to, (wrongly) thinking I would find it magical. Well, that moment when Jackie Paper didn't come back for Puff anymore, it about killed me. My dad tried to calm me down by explaining that Puff wasn't even a real dragon and it's not to be taken literally but nothing helped. My sister still thinks it's funny to play the song in front of me just to watch my inevitable emotional breakdown.

Ethan has that. The sensitive, anxious, emotional thing. He can read books in which a character is sad and he'll have to slowly wipe his tears away, his lip quivering as he tries to make sense of all this sadness. "He's so sad, mommy. I don't want him to be sad."

It's not uncommon for me to see the hurt eyes and lip quiver on a regular basis. "Mommy, I know that sadness goes away but right now the sadness is really big in my heart." "Mommy, my feelings are hurt and I don't know how to make the sadness go away." "Mommy, I'm okay, but my heart just feels a little sad right now."

For something so familiar to me, something that comes so natural, it feels so foreign when it's happening to Ethan and I don't know how to stop it. His pain and sadness cuts me deeper than my own pain and sadness does. I'm slowly learning that you can't stop it. That's the thing about sadness, you just have to feel it and let it do its thing. Some people feel awkward around sadness. Others have the ability to tune it out. Some just brush it off and move on. Others, those people like Ethan and I, feel it deeply with every ounce of their body.

Now, as a bereaved parent, I'm constantly on the receiving end of the "there, there" pats on the back that basically mean just take your sadness elsewhere, it's uncomfortable for me. I want better for Ethan. I want better for him when he's experiencing these intense and confusing feelings, and I want better for him in terms of knowing how to treat sadness in other people. I want him to know it's really freaking sad that the dragon felt lonely when his friend didn't come back for him. I also want him to know he can talk to me about the sadness in his heart, even if it's something that seems so silly to everyone around him (the instance in which one of his Lego people took an unintentional and unannounced covert vacation to my mom's house comes to mind). And if one day one of his friends are going through their own tragedy, I want him to know how to react to the sadness of others. Recognizing someone's sadness isn't enough and, in some way, I feel like at three years old he understands that more than so many adults I've encountered.

I grew up dreading my own sensitivity, knowing that it didn't take much for something to sting at my heart and leave a scar. It was sort of the opposite of having that thick skin everyone encourages you to have once you hit puberty and the playgrounds at school somehow morph into war zones. In Ethan, though, I admire it. I fear it and I admit fully that his sadness brings me sadness, but I admire it. It takes bravery to feel so deeply. He is braver than he knows, even in those instances where he feels so afraid and unsure and the world around him just feels so very big. Bravery and emotion go hand in hand, and this is something I want him to know. It's something that is so often challenged in childhood when it feels easier to tell our children how they're feeling ("you're okay") rather than listening to how they're actually feeling.

Sometimes I prematurely worry for Ethan's teen years when I'm sure his heart will break at least as often as mine did. I have lost count of the boys who have broken my heart, the friends who made me feel unloved and left out as I stumbled my way through teenager-dom. I worry for all of the times he will be told to get over it, let it go, you're fine. I worry because I know firsthand that this world won't find his heart half as beautiful as I do. And, still, I believe in the beauty that is his heart. I believe in his feelings and sentimentality. I believe the world will be a better place because of the warmth and feeling that he pours into every day. I believe that he is brave for exposing so much of his heart to the world. The right people will be attracted to that warmth and bravery.

And, I truly believe, his compassion will go on to change the world and make it more beautiful than he could ever imagine.

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