April 2013

The gift of sadness

As Ailsa Piper grapples with sadness, she comes to see that this oft-suppressed emotion can be a gift.

BY Ailsa Piper

I woke today feeling sad.

Usually, I can rid myself of my cares with a good long walk. Send me out onto a dirt road with a sack of sorrow for four or five hours, throw in a few hill climbs, some bracing winds from the south, and a goodly dose of solitude, and I’ll return red-cheeked and grinning, the sack empty of all save a few crumbs of woe – the ones that humanise and soften.

Since Easter, I’ve walked miles under skies of all hues, and I’ve swum in Port Philip Bay on a day designed to dazzle. I have talked with those I trust, worked with words I love and listened to music that usually heals. I’ve given myself a solid talking-to and I’ve counted my blessings – that took longer than all the other activities put together.

Yet still I feel sad.

There’s no reason for this sorrow. Yes, on Good Friday I was reminded, as always, of death and suffering. In Melbourne it was a grey, mournful day, and I decided my melancholy was brought on by a convergence of scripture and weather, and it would pass on Easter Sunday in the uplift of resurrection and chocolate eggs.

It didn’t.

Instead, I noted the fall of leaves, the fade of light, and the chill of evening. I focused on media coverage of murders and bombings, and fixated on the abuse of children, feeling my stomach turn, yet unable to avert my eyes.

I don’t enjoy melancholy, and I’ve no taste for gloom. When sadness does creep up on me, I feel ashamed. How dare I be sad when I get to do something I love, when my body is healthy and I live in a wealthy democracy? Mine is a blessed and sunny existence, and my persona is predicated on optimism. I was once described as “relentlessly happy”. I’m blonde, for heavens sake! I have no right to feel this way.

And yet, something is shifting.

I weep at inexplicable moments – seeing the silhouette of a dog sprinting along a ridge against the blaze of sunrise; watching a dreadlocked mother kiss her daughter’s nose as they sit unmoving on a park swing; noticing how the cry of a gull and the trail of a jet-stream unite overhead; hearing my father’s familiar two-note “hel-lo” down the phone.

What is the point of all these tears, I ask myself. There must be a reason, or else they’re grotesque. Something useful must emerge, or this sadness is simply indulgence.

No answer comes.

It feels as though my internal support structures could break open, crack to form fault-lines, and if they do, there will undoubtedly be change. Nothing will be as before, if that is what is required by this sadness, and I know from previous experience, that ultimately, it will be to the good.


In the meantime, there is discomfort, uncertainty and fear, and there is the challenge of how to live with that trinity.

Like many, I’ve become skilled at covering anything that looks like vulnerability. Heaven forbid others should know I’m afraid, or not coping as well as I might if I was the person I pretend to be. I pride myself on my ability to put on a happy face. When I teach, I often ask people to force their facial muscles into a smile and observe what happens. There’s always a change. Knowing this, I slap on my grin like war paint and forge into the days.

Except just now, I can’t get away with it.

The smile makes my face ache.

I want to understand this nonspecific sadness, to treat it and move it along, so that the next thing, the yet-to-be-born thing, can emerge. I am impatient, a child of the quick-fix, name-it-and-medicate-it culture in which we live. I want to be doing and creating, because there is so much to cram into that space we take for granted – the one between first intake and final exhale. I have had more than a passing acquaintance with death, and it has left me with an imperative to fill every heartbeat.

And besides, I want to be that sunny person again. This sad sack is no fun at all.

I try the way of stillness. I sit in the red chair in the corner of my office, but I hear the clock ticking and I squirm. I don’t want to work for the lesson of this sadness, much less wait for it. I want answers right now, wrapped in crisp brown paper and tied with a shiny crimson ribbon.

It’s strange.

I’ve never felt this lumbering sadness in the presence of death.

I remember the marvel of brushing my mother’s hair when she was dying – an intimacy we had not shared since my childhood – and the fragility of her bones as I massaged favorite creams into her chapped skin. My only thought was to ease her way.

I think of the constructed family that came together to nurse a friend who was dying of AIDS. One night, faced with his anguish at constantly baring his frail body for treatment, we all shed our trousers in solidarity with him. We were in despair, but determined to reduce the status of our healthy bodies in the face of his helplessness. He died with courage and hilarity, and we who nursed him were remade by the experience.

Death is clear. It can chew us up and spit us out, but if we are heartbroken we know why – and it leaves us with the concrete, comprehensible emotion that is grief. No matter how agonising it is, we recognise it for what it is, and for why.


We turn our eyes away from it, inclining toward stories of birth and beginnings. We prefer the Sunday resurrection to the Friday crucifixion.

Of course.

And yet, death is honest. It has never lied to us about its intent or its inevitability. It will come. It will claim us. So why look away from the one certainty of our lives?

I’m grateful to death, and to my varied experiences of it. It gives me a scale for comparison, so I can tell myself, as I weigh this dull weight in my chest, that yes, it is sadness and must be given its due, but it will not be the end of me, or of someone I love. This is not the black dog of depression, which has savaged some I’ve loved before taking them to meet with death.

No, this is sadness. It’s trying to offer me something, but like a spoiled child demanding more, I want my world to look like it did before. I don’t want the upheaval, or change, that sadness portends.

But change, like death, is inevitable – and there are endings that don’t involve the cessation of heartbeats. This sadness may foreshadow the conclusion of a way of seeing or being, of a construct that has not served, or a belief that must be let go. It may mean the breaking of a pattern or the shedding of a layer. It may mean the removal of a veil, so the world can be seen more clearly.

So for now, I’ll try to treat this sadness as a kind of death, and then maybe I’ll know better how to deal with it. I will make space for it. I won’t force it to hike or take it out in wild weather. Instead, I will acknowledge it, observe it and be patient with it. I will wait for it to talk to me, observing the silence it demands. I will allow it to be a mystery until it’s ready to be known. Whatever is contained in this sadness, I must trust that it will decide the time and place to give me its gift.

For a gift is what it will surely be, eventually.

Whether I want it or not.

And while I’m sitting here waiting, maybe I will let the muscles of my face relax, and be brave enough to tell the world that I’m not entirely chipper. Maybe I’ll experiment with that kind of courage – the courage to be true. Vulnerable.


Sinning Across Spain is in bookshops and available online. Read more of Ailsa’s work at www.ailsapiper.com You can also visit Ailsa’s Facebook page or follow her on Twitter.

Ailsa Piper

Ailsa Piper has worked for over 35 years as a writer, director, actor, teacher, speaker and broadcaster. As a writer, she works across many mediums. Highlights include being named co-winner of the Patrick White Playwright's Award for her script "Small Mercies" in 2001; publishing her first book "Sinning Across Spain" in 2012; and writing and performing an episode of ABC Radio's Poetica program, based on that book. Ailsa also co-adapted Bell Shakespeare's acclaimed version of "The Duchess of Malfi" in 2012. Her most recent book, co-authored with Tony Doherty, is "The Attachment: Letters from a Most Unlikely Friendship". She is passionate about walking and words, believing that it is our stories that define us.

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