The Sorrows to Come

Happy New Year!

Starting a brand new year always makes me feel optimistic. I know there’s nothing special about January 1st. I know that the fact that we consider this particular day the beginning of what we call a “year” is arbitrary.

Yet something about it being a brand new year—about writing a new date on the first page of a brand-new journal—makes me feel hopeful and excited about a year that seems like a blank slate to me.

Part of me always expects (or hopes) that something spectacular is going to happen during the new year. I look at my planner, full of blank, white pages, and I wonder what wonderful memories I will make this year, what surprises wait for me in the days to come.

Maybe my optimism sounds silly to you. Maybe I’m being a little too sentimental, a little too whimsical. But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. The popularity of New Year’s resolutions suggests to me that a sizable chunk of the population still hopes that, for whatever reason, this year will somehow be better than last year.

I like optimism. I think choosing to focus on the positive is healthy, and I see no point in borrowing trouble from tomorrow.

But before you dive headfirst into all the plans you have for this new year, I’d like to ask you to pause, to take a moment to consider something most of us would probably rather ignore today, when the cheers and fireworks are still ringing in our ears.

I’d like you to consider the sorrows to come.

Reality Check

Let’s be honest for a minute: not everything that happens this year is going to be good. Not all the memories we make will be happy ones, and not all surprises are wonderful. We will encounter joy and laughter and delight this year—of that I have no doubt—but we will also all, without exception, face sorrow.

I’m more aware of this reality now than I was a year ago. At the start of 2018, I never expected that I would have to leave home suddenly that year, that I would spend months dealing with overwhelm and anxiety and grief. I doubt that 2019 will be quite as traumatic—I sincerely hope it is not—but I have to face the fact that, at some point during this year, I will go through something hard and painful, something I can’t even imagine right now.

The question is this: how am I going to respond to the sorrows to come this year?

When I was struggling with depression, a counselor at my community college introduced me to the concept of “toolkits.” A toolkit is a list of actions to take when things get tough, things you know will help you get through a hard time healthily.

My toolkit for depression wasn’t anything fancy—I wrote it on a sticky note and stuck it in the back of my planner. Some of the tasks were so small they seem insignificant, like “make a cup of tea.” Some were a bit more time-intensive, like “call the mental health hotline.”

But all the actions in my depression toolkit had two things in common:

  1. I knew from experience that they were helpful when I was having a hard time with depression.
  2. I had trouble remembering to do them when the hard time was actually occurring.

Preparing for Pain

Here’s the thing about toolkits: you have to make them before you need them.

Emotions can be overpowering. Even if you don’t have a mental illness, intense emotions—especially unpleasant emotions, like fear and pain and grief—can cloud your judgment. Our first reactions aren’t always the healthiest, but when we’re overwhelmed by emotion, we can’t always figure out a better response.

That’s where toolkits come in.

I wrote my depression toolkit during a good day as note to myself on a future bad day. On a day when I could think clearly, I made decisions for days when I couldn’t.

I haven’t needed to use my depression toolkit in a long time, but as I start a new year—a year I know will contain sorrows as well as joys—I’m putting together a toolkit to help me get through the hard days. I encourage you to do the same.

My toolkit for the sorrows to come:

1. Make a cup of tea.

It takes me less than five minutes to make a cup of tea. That’s long enough to break the cycle of worry or anxiety or grief or whatever I’m struggling with that day. It gives me something other than my sorrow to focus on for a couple of minutes, something that’s real and tangible and in the present moment. Plus, it’s a quick, easy, and free comfort boost.

2. What’s the next thing I need to do?

When life gets hard, I get overwhelmed; I know that about myself. On days like that, looking at a whole to-do list feels like too much on days, but if I can focus just on the next thing I have to do—just one, small task I can complete within the next few minutes—it gives me somewhere healthy to put my attention. It keeps me moving forward so I’m not stagnating in the fog of negativity I feel.

3. Don’t bottle it up.

I learned this from my experience with depression: running from my pain doesn’t make it go away. It just means I have to deal with it later—and the more I’ve bottled up, the bigger the crisis when I’m finally forced to confront all the emotions I’ve been trying to ignore. When I feel anxiety or grief, I need to do something about it. I could talk with a friend, write in my journal, play the piano—it doesn’t really matter what I do as long as I’m expressing what I feel in a healthy way.

4. Choose gratitude.

You can always find something to be thankful for, no matter how hard life gets—and if you make a habit of looking for the positive, you get better at finding it. Focusing on gratitude makes it hard to indulge in self-pity, and it makes it almost impossible to lose hope. I used this strategy the month we moved, and it made a huge difference in my mental health during one of the most difficult experiences of my life.

Looking forward

I’m still optimistic about 2019. I’m still hopeful that that this time next year I’ll be able to look back at good memories, at happiness and laughter and fun.

But on the days that aren’t so easy, the days that have more tears than smiles and more pain than joy, I’ll have this list in my journal, a gift from the me of today to the me of my future. In the dark days to come, the days when I’m overwhelmed or hurting and I don’t know what to do, I’ll hear my own words from today whispering to me, “Do this. Now this. Now this.”

When I face the sorrows I know are coming, I’ll be ready.

How do you plan to deal with the sorrows to come in 2019? Do you have a toolkit or something similar to help you through hard times?

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *