You have permission to feel sad

Acknowledging Covid-induced losses, however small, can lead to being more compassionate and helpful to others

I felt a certain smugness when I saw Texas native and Houstonian Brené Brown on the cover of the latest Texas Monthly magazine. “It’s about time,” I thought, “that the rest of the world join me on the Brené train.”

I’ve been a fan of hers since 2013 when I read “The Gifts of Imperfection,” and watched her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.”

Brené (I use her first name because I would like to think we’re besties who’ve never met, obviously, and she would tell me “Dr. Brown” sounds too formal) has spent the past two decades as a research professor at the University of Houston studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. She has written five other best sellers.

One of my favorite points in the previously-mentioned TED Talk that helped put her on the map: after she interviewed thousands of people and looked for common threads, she found that “There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”

She was telling me, a perfectionist who believed if I just worked hard enough I would achieve worthiness, that I already was worthy (and best of all, my worthiness was evidence-based)! I’ve been hooked ever since.

June’s Texas Monthly feature, “How the Pandemic Turned Brené Brown Into America’s Therapist.” Photo courtesy Texas Monthly.

When I started listening to her new podcast, Unlocking Us, I wondered if she would have anything new to teach me. (Spoiler: the answer is yes.)

Brené released a podcast episode on March 27 titled “Brené on Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 Myth, and Settling the Ball.” She makes a lot of great points about life during this awful pandemic. But the one that has been replaying in my mind for the past few weeks is this: it’s okay to grieve your losses from COVID-19, even if they are smaller than the next person’s. (And if you raise a skeptical brow at that like I do, remember, she backs it up with research!)

I was raised to always be mindful of those who are less fortunate. I think many East Texans were. We hear things like “You should be grateful,” or “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” or “It could be worse, so don’t complain.” The upside that often runs alongside these sentiments is a desire to care for others. One of the things I love about this community is how generously they give to organizations who help the less fortunate.

And COVID-19 has caused East Texas so much suffering right now that it’s truly breathtaking.

Smith County alone has seen 198 cases and four deaths. According to the Texas Tribune, “The state’s April jobless rate was 12.8% — Texas’ worst monthly tally on record,” and “NAMI Texas, the state affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has seen a 500% increase in calls since the coronavirus pandemic took hold.” In March, KLTV reported that the East Texas Crisis Center in Tyler saw a 50% spike in hotline calls for domestic violence. The East Texas Food Bank has seen 74% more households this April than April 2019.

Those are all awful, terrible things. No one is negating that, and I feel for my neighbors who are in such hard times right now.

Brené makes a strong case for grieving losses, however small. For those of us who live in privilege or remain less touched by COVID’s havoc, we can and should acknowledge loss and sadness nonetheless.

For Rebecca Hoeffner Smith, feeling sadness related to the coronavirus does not diminish her gratitude and helpfulness to those most needy.

“Without thinking, we start to rank our suffering (against someone else’s), and use it to deny ourselves permission to feel,” she said on her podcast. “Emotions do not go away because we send them a message that ‘Hey these feelings are inappropriate and do not score high enough on the suffering board. Please delete all feelings related to this.’ That’s not the way this works. The emotions that we feel, when we deny them, they double down, they burrow, they fester, they metastasize. They invite shame over for the party. We say ‘I am a bad person because I am sad when other people have it so much worse than me.’

“The idea of comparative suffering is based on the myth that empathy is finite. The idea that empathy is like pizza, that there are eight slices. False.

“When we practice empathy with ourselves and others, we have more to give others. Love, y’all, is the last thing we need to ration in this world. The surest way to ensure that you have a reserve of compassion for others is to attend to your own feelings.”

Am I still grateful for my health and my family’s health, for my job? With every fibre, I am profoundly grateful. But thanks to Brené’s words, I am giving myself permission to grieve the things I miss, too.

I miss popping into my brilliant, funny coworkers’ offices to work on spontaneous ideas. I miss going to meetings in person (even the ones that should have been an email). I miss going to a restaurant, even when my toddler throws a fit in the middle of one. I miss chatting with my neighbors without having to worry about staying six feet away. I miss hugging friends and family. I miss spending time with friends and family, period. I miss traveling, going to movies and concerts. I miss the collective excitement of being in a huge group of people who are gathered to celebrate a shared interest, like live music at Stanley’s, a show at Liberty Hall, or Hit the Bricks downtown.

These are smaller losses. But they are still losses. And I don’t have to be ashamed to be sad about them. 

Instead of the “You should be grateful” mantra, I have adopted a friendlier, more inclusive version. “Treat yourself and others with compassion, for occasions big and small.” Then, when we volunteer with PATH, the East Texas Food Bank, or the East Texas Crisis Center, we have more to give those we meet there.

Hop aboard the Brené train with me. The more passengers there are, the more room there is to share.

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Rebecca Hoeffner Smith is the former Religion Editor for the Tyler Morning Telegraph and loves to examine how people's faith impacts their daily life. In 2014 she transitioned from journalism to public health, and is currently a Certified Prevention Specialist for the Tyler-based nonprofit, Next Step Community Solutions. When she's not geeking out on data or writing, you can find her reading a novel, doing Zumba or spending time with her husband, Stewart, and son, Dean.