It was a golden school's out for summer moment: Blake, holding his kindergarten "diploma", Dillon, wearing pajama pants (teacher-approved attire for the class breakfast), Cate, striking a pose and clutching the basket that had held the class breakfast biscuits.
It was also drizzling rain. With the picture taken and the moment over, Shawn went back to work and the kids and I hopped in my car to go visit my mom in the hospital.
Mom was at the beginning of what would become a month-long hospital stay, which included two unexpected surgeries. The first surgery was on her birthday. Being in the hospital also meant she had to miss her nephew's high school graduation and Blake's end-of-the-year kindergarten ceremony.
We went to the hospital a lot that month. The kids were concerned, but overall they seemed to be handling it pretty well.
Then one day when we were hanging out at home, I heard the boys yell "Mom!" And two sets of feet running towards me.
"I think Diamond is dead," Dillon said. Diamond was the fish he got for his birthday.
"Are you sure?" I asked, stalling, because I wasn't ready to see a fish floating belly up.
Blake looked at me with wide eyes and then cracked a smile. As if to say, We're not kidding, and I know it's not funny, but it feels a little bit funny.
"He's lying at the bottom of the tank," Dillon replied. "And his color has changed."
"Oh," I said. I peeked inside the tank. I saw Diamond, lying by the plastic plant on top of the rocks, looking quite gray. "Yes, he's dead."
Dillon started to cry. The dead fish had sent him over the edge. "Why is summer turning out so bad?"
A bolt of heat shot through my chest, like a piece of his sadness had moved right through me.
I reminded him of the good things that were happening, too. Mom was going to be okay. We'd had some fun, despite the rainy start and the visits to the hospital. We were about to go on a family vacation.
"But, it's also okay to feel sad," I added. "I'm sad, too." It's like what author Katherine Center and I talked about last week. Life is good things and bad things happening at the same time.
I used a spoon to scoop Diamond out of the tank. We went outside and buried him by a tree. We said kind words, offered a prayer, and wished him happiness in fish heaven.
Later in the summer, we saw the movie Inside Out.
Inside Out is about a young girl Riley who has moved to a new city with her family. Riley has voices (little animated people) inside her head: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. In the beginning, the movie makes us root for Joy, because we think Joy is GOOD and Sadness is BAD. We want Riley's core memories to be happy, but Sadness keeps getting in way.
"I don't know what's happening," Sadness says. Everything she touches affects the whole system. "I can't control myself."
Riley becomes depressed and withdrawn. And, what we eventually realize is that Joy—not Sadness—is the one getting in the way. Joy is trying so hard to block Sadness during a critical time when Sadness needs to have a voice. Finally, Sadness breaks through, and Riley tells her parents that she's homesick. She cries and tells them how much she misses her friends. She confesses that she feels like she has to pretend to be happy to keep her parents happy.
With the truth spoken and the pretending exposed, Riley and her parents live happily ever after. Okay, not exactly. But expressing the sadness brings a sense of relief to all three of them and mends their connection.
In the end, we learn that Sadness is the doorway to the next chapter of Riley's life.
(It's kind of like that classic scene in Steel Magnolias.)
Sometimes it's difficult to identify and name our feelings. But it's worth the effort. Name them, feel them and express them. As much as I want a life filled with joy—and as much as I want that for my kids—in order for that to happen, there has to be room at the table for all of the unpleasant feelings too.
Do you a recall a time that letting yourself feel sadness has freed you and opened the door for joy to return?