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Bittersweet


Hello my friends. How are you doing? Are you doing fine? Doin’ okay? I’ve noticed we all tend to say those very vague and generic things when we aren’t really doing fine or okay - and I understand why we answer that way - but today, if someone were to ask me how I’m feeling, I would say ‘bittersweet - oh what a treat.’ and then I would grin and my eyes might get a little watery, they might well up a little bit with tears, or they might not, because I really am swimming in the bittersweet emotion lately.

 

We just dropped my son off for his two year mission - he’ll be serving in a foreign country if all goes smoothly - and this is kind of a big deal, right? 

 

Just before we said our final goodbye, he reached down and gave me a huge hug, he gives the best hugs, and he’s a full twelve inches taller than I am, with long and strong arms, he said, “I love you mom, you are the best mom, thank you for getting me here and for helping make this happen for me. I’ll miss you so much.” 

 

Ahhhhhhhhh

 

I don’t know how long our hug lasted, it was a long time, but it wasn’t long enough. And yet, it was just right, too.

 

I’ve coached many moms on tender things surrounding becoming an empty-nester, we still have one kiddo in the home, but it’s coming - and so I’ve decided to share all the nuances and wisdoms I’ve gleaned from other moms and from my own experiences as I’ve launched my children and helped myself manage the emotion I call bittersweet.

 

I also want to disclose, that sharing openly about my experience with this emotion while I’m swimming in it has a little bit of a personal motivation, I’m wanting to help myself move forward and talk about it openly, so I can feel better, honestly.

 

So let’s dive in. 

 

When it comes to having an emotional vocabulary, being able to put words to the emotions we are feeling, this is at the heart of emotional intelligence and it is very empowering. 

 

Language is THE tool we use to navigate expressing our stories, what’s going on inside of our heads and our hearts. 

 

The word, bittersweet, is such a perfect word to describe the very complex story that is playing out in my mind and my heart right now.

 

It’s different from the feeling of Sadness, or the feeling of Nostalgia, or even the feeling of Grief, though all of those emotions are intertwined within the emotion called Bittersweet.

 

And I want to break it down; but before I do, again speaking to WHY this matters. It goes back to owning our story. Being able to understand and own our internal story is so empowering. And it gives us the courage and grounded confidence to then be able to create meaningful connection with other humans who have similar stories, we can share and edify each other in the sharing, versus closing off or shutting down or hiding from it. 

 

This is why the art of storytelling is so powerful, and why humans will always be storytellers. 

 

I personally like to tell stories in songs, whether I listen to another songwriter, or I write my own. 

 

And the art medium of movies is so powerful for this. I love the story of Beth in the book Little Women, both in book form and in movie form. It’s bittersweet. I always cry when I watch the movie again, and I watch it every holiday season for a reason, I tend to feel a lot of sadness around the holidays, I miss my mom who passed away, I miss my grandmother who helped raise me, and the magic she created for our family on Christmas Eve, and I miss my first born son who was born in December and died as an infant. So lots of heaviness around the month of December, along with a lot of comfort and joy in knowing why we celebrate such a beautiful season and gather as families. 

 

The holidays are bittersweet for me. They probably always will be.

 

And knowing this, and owning my story with these experiences and these emotions, not telling myself:

 

  • You should be happy at christmas time. It’s a magical season.
  • You should suck it up and be strong. 
  • Don’t focus on the negative, focus on the positive. 

 

No, I don’t tell myself those things anymore. 

 

And I don’t want you to tell yourself those things either, if the emotion of Bittersweet comes up for you. 

 

So, let’s break down why this emotion is so different from many others. 

 

A good definition we can probably all agree upon, and I found this definition in Brene Brown’s book, Atlas of the Heart, which I’m doing a bookclub on for the next two months, and you should join us! A virtual bookclub about being adventurous with the inner terrain of our heartspaces, and the places we go, in the hopes of finding ourselves, versus getting lost or disconnected from what matters - it’s going to be so goooooood my friends, join us today!

 

A good definition of the emotion Bittersweet, “Bittersweet is Appreciating life’s most precious moments and the unbearable awareness that those moments are passing.” and that definition is quoted from Marc Parent in Brene’s book, Atlas of the Heart. 

 

It’s a perfect definition.

 

Appreciating life’s most precious moments AND the unbearable awareness that those moments are passing.

 

And so this mixed feeling of both happiness and sadness happening at the same time, for me - loving the moment intensely while knowing it’s time to let go, too.

 

There are so many circumstances that can bring this emotion to the forefront:

 

  • For me, anything having to do with a milestone with my children
  • Coming home from a fun vacation
  • Death of a loved one who has been suffering or enduring chronic pain
  • Leaving a job that you loved but knowing it’s time to move on
  • Graduating
  • Moving 
  • Watching my music students graduate 
  • Getting older 
  • Being happy for a friend getting married when you’re still single
  • Being happy for a new mom when you’re going through infertility
  • Being adopted
  • Adopting a child



Thinking back on a lot of different stages of my life so far, the Bittersweet emotion has shown up many, many, times. 

 

In my personal experience, I’ve navigated it well sometimes, and I’ve also become kind of lost in it. 

 

And so I want to share with you how to navigate this tricky emotion, how to avoid some of its pitfalls, and how to honor it in all its nuances.

 

First, let’s talk about its pitfalls:

 

  • #1) Thinking it’s actual grief, even though it has some grief-like qualities. Confusing it with grief is common, especially if you’ve experienced loss of a loved one before. But it’s different from grief in that there is still some joy and goodness to look forward to, the person is still alive, there are still some wonderful memories and things coming down the road that will be amazing to experience, either with this person, or the new circumstance you’re creating for yourself. Does that make sense? But if we confuse it with grief, then we will shut down our capacity to enjoy those moments when they present themselves. I did this when my daughter left for college. I was sooooo sad. And i knew it was also a very happy moment, and that it was amazing for her to get to go to her dream school. But I was very caught up in the sad, i didn’t enjoy our trip out to Boston where we toured the campus, i just kept thinking of her as a little girl, and my mind would wander, that Boston trip was a blur for me. And in doing so, I realized I was confusing the emotion of Grief with Bittersweet. What I could have done instead, looking back, and I’m glad i have this experience to learn from, I could have written down all the things I was feeling sad about instead of carrying it around in my head, I could have reached out to some friends about how they experienced their kids moving away to college, and gleaned some insights from their experiences versus grappling with it privately. We need to never underestimate the power of connection when going through new experiences that take us on new emotional journeys, new ground we’re covering, we don’t have to do that alone. Grief is the same way, but there is a very private aspect to grief in that outright losing a person, the loss of that person will not be felt the same way between two people who loved that person. And even so, it’s important not to hide our grief or think we have to go it alone, but there is a difference with the two emotions I’m talking about here. And so - knowing that is very empowering to me. Because when I know the difference between the two, I don’t have to constantly wonder if something is wrong with me, or why don’t I feel better sooner, or if I’m doing it ‘right,’ those spinning questions can just make us feel like garbage and drain our energy. 

 

And that brings me to the second pitfall with the emotion of Bittersweet.

  • #2 - Hiding, shutting down, going into a depression or not knowing how to create new meaning moving forward. This is similar to feeling the emotion I call hopelessness. And the thing about hope is that we need it like we need air to breathe. When we’re experiencing the bittersweet emotion, the sadness side can move lightning fast into thinking there’s no way to get what we so desperately loved and need back again. And there is some truth to that, but it isn’t entirely true. Right? Because the truth is, we have an opportunity to reset the relationship, moving forward, and to remain open to what that will look like, carrying along with that reset, a knowing of where we WANT to go. But if we are stuck in feeling sad and hopeless, we’ll miss it.  

 

  • To illustrate this, when my daughter left for college, I couldn’t even picture what our relationship reset would look like. I couldn’t see a clear path forward. And this is truly a pitfall. Because it can actually be really fun and beautiful to start picturing a path forward during the experience of Bittersweet. And so, I was confusing the thinking. There needs to be a flexibility in the thinking that allows for imagining what else could be possible. I learned from that experience, that hope is a way of thinking, it is created in the cognition, it isn’t necessarily a feeling as much as it is a process or way of thinking. 

 

So, walking myself through the process of cultivating hope on purpose, it took some time, but I did it by setting realistic goals for what I wanted in terms of maintaining connection with my daughter. 

  • I wanted weekly checkins on sundays to hear about her week, where we would Facetime and hangout. 
  • I knew I wanted to hear about her friends and who she was connecting with in the big city, where most of the student body is from all over the world, I wanted to hear more about that.
  • I also knew that I wanted to know some of what she was learning with music theory and that she could come to me with any questions, that I had done it too back in the day, and so those goals of maintaining some connection with those themes helped us carve a path and create new experiences and new ways of connection. 

 

Once we know the pitfalls of the emotion Bittersweet, then we can talk about how to navigate its nuances in ways that will serve you the best moving forward. 

 

And so what this looks like is: 

 

  • Name it for what it is. Just knowing that the brain is grappling with two equally strong, powerful narratives is helpful because it isn’t black and white, and nothing has gone wrong when both emotions are equally strong. Knowing that allows for you to hold the tension going on inside of you and not judge it, but allow it to be there. Allowing emotions and the tension that goes on under the surface is a super power. The better you get at allowing emotion, naming it, recognizing it in your body, and being aware of the sentences that are driving the emotion, the better you’ll be at creating meaningful connection with your loved ones. 

 

 

  • Part of this might involve writing out why you are sad. Write out why you are happy and grateful. And then giving yourself permission to be both, telling yourself you can be both. 

 

  • Honor what you’ll miss while fighting for a beautiful future. I’ve spoken to this in previous podcasts. But let me give you some concrete examples of what this can sound like:
    • Friend moving away: give voice with your friend of what you will miss, but also brainstorm with her about ways to stay connected. Can you commit to a catchup phone call once a month, or every year around a birthday? Honor the ground you’ve covered, but fight for new ways to stay connected. 
    • You get a new job: write thank you notes to everyone you appreciate and tell them why you appreciate them, express your hope to stay connected and come up with a plan to do so, if that is something you want to pursue. Don’t ever assume that it’s all over if you don’t want it to be. 
    • Becoming an empty nester: Reset your purpose, your life’s purpose : Really spend time imagining what it can look like, and let your imagination play with the possibilities of your future moving forward. Yes, you are a mom, AND you are also so much more. If you haven’t explored that yet, don’t beat yourself up about any of it, but allow yourself to get busy trying new things. One mom told me how she did this when she was out shopping one day for no particular reason, she was in a kitchen store, and she loved all the things there, and she saw that they were hiring, so she asked if she could work part time. She was hired and loved that little job, even though she didn’t need the money, she just loved getting out and talking to people and having that to look forward to while she was figuring out her new place in the world. She was able to see this time as an opportunity for new experiences. 

 

I want to take a moment and address Bittersweet with some heavier topics, like infertility. Oh man, this one can be hard. 

 

If you are the one who is going through infertility, and all your friends are having babies and baby showers, and all the joy they are experiencing, and deep down you are genuinely happy for them, you don’t want to rain on their parade, but you also are working so hard to just keep swimming. You might be feeling a lot of Bittersweet emotion if you are experiencing this circumstance. 

 

If so, it’s important to be honest with yourself and others. If you attend a baby shower, and the tears want to silently stream down your face, let them. And if you are embarrassed, own that - , you can say things like: “i’m so happy for you friend, I just love this so much, and at the same time, I feel a little sad and wonder when it will happen for me, and I’m also embarrassed because i didn’t mean to draw attention to me on your special day, it just happens to be that it feels tender today, but please know how happy I am for you and I don’t want you to hold any of that back, I love you and I’m excited for you and i’m a little sad too, just all of it.”

 

Now - this is such a healthy, beautiful way to handle the emotion of Bittersweet while it’s happening. You aren’t hiding, you aren’t pretending, you are telling the whole truth, and that is so refreshing for other people. It gets awkward when we pretend and hide, when your energy doesn’t match what other people might be sensing. And so give yourself so much grace to tell the whole truth and own what you are feeling, give it some words, your friends and loved ones will feel so connected to you and want to support you even more. 

 

It’s important that we do this for ourselves, and for the people we are interacting with who know we are going through something challenging, but they want to include us in their joyful moments too. 

 

I’ve also coached on this with issues surrounding adoption. When the birth mom is going through a tremendous loss, and the adopted mom is going through a tremendous joy - if both moms can own their Bittersweet emotions, this will create meaningful connection for everyone in the story and be so empowering. 

 

The overall goal is to stay connected with ALL of your truth, not just parts of it. 

 

I was recently reading in Dolly Parton’s book, called Songwriter, the inspiration behind her song, I will Always Love you, and how she was going through the emotion of Bittersweet when she wrote that song. Her longtime friend and producer had an intense relationship, when things were good, it was really good, and when things were hard, they fought a lot, and she knew it was time to move on and go independent, but she also felt so grateful for all he taught her and all he’d done for her to help move her career forward. 

 

When she sang the song for him, he cried, and she said it was so hard! But she knew what she had to do. They both did. She owned her truth and allowed herself to feel all of it, and in doing so, she stayed true to what was best for her. 

 

I really admire her for that. 

 

Do not shut down and hide what you know is best for you for fear of hurting other people. When you own the whole truth of things, not just the convenient parts of it, most likely you are knocking on the door of going through the emotion of Bittersweet. And you kind of sense or know it will be a lot. But don’t let that hold you back. Own your truth of all of it. 

 

Just to recap: There is actual tension that is going on inside the head and the heart when Bittersweet is occurring. Allow for the tension much the same way I teach my clients how to allow for  anxiety - move into your body and ask yourself where you are feeling it in the inner terrain of the body. 

 

For me, bittersweet occurs in my chest, it’s as though my heart could literally push through the skin. I also feel it in my throat, it tightens. I feel it do this wave thing, this intense wave washes over me, and it almost makes my skin crawl. My eyes almost always get teary. I’ve learned to let them flow, versus swallowing hard and trying to bite it back. Just breathing deeply and saying to myself, oh hi Bittersweet, we’re old friends, aren’t we. Welcoming it, and allowing it to move through me and giving it some space. 

 

To end, I want to give you a little peptalk, especially to all the moms who are listening, who worry about how they’ll handle the big milestones as kids move on - I want to offer to you, that you CAN handle this, you have everything inside of you to love and to let go. And as you do that in a healthy, whole-hearted way, your children will love and appreciate you for it. 

 

My husband was so fun to watch as we dropped my son off. He was just so proud, as a dad and of our son. He wasn’t swimming in bittersweet, he was just proud that that’s where we are in our parenting journey, and when we got in the car, I have tears streaming down my face, he’s like, well - we did our job for now, let’s go eat somewhere! Who wants teppanyaki?  Haha

 

And I didn’t feel hungry at all, I would have preferred to just head home. But I caught myself and said no, he’s right, let’s bask in the joy of what this means for us as parents and for our son moving forward. I can do both. 

 

My husband sees the milestones as : We are giving them wings. I love thinking of it that way, too along with feeling sad.

 

Our capacity to love and to let go is what makes life so rich and deeply meaningful. Do not let the Bittersweet emotion confuse you. Embrace it, welcome it, and let it wash over you with all its intensity and joy and heartache at the same time, and your heart will grow and expand in the process, and this is a good thing. 

 

Okay, you’ve got this my friend. And know that I’m right there with you, cheering you on.

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