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Joan E. Dowlin Headshot

The Healing Power of Glorious Sadness

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In Sarah McLachlan's "Angel," she sings about a "glorious sadness that brings me to my knees." I never really knew what that meant until a few weeks ago.

Throughout the past eight years I have lost my mother, sister, brother-in-law, two aunts, great uncle, great aunt, two uncles, two cousins, two close friends, best friend's husband, close friend's mother, an ex-boyfriend, a member of my brass quintet, and most recently my father.

I think that comes to 18, but I've kind of lost count. Of course, there are varying degrees of grieving that comes with each individual loss, depending on how close I was to the person, but averaging more than two deaths of family and friends a year for eight years is a bit tough.

Out of that list, I haven't even begun to mourn the cousins and family members and friends that were not in my inner circle. But I still feel the sting of their deaths.

It's just that the grief of losing my mother, my sister, my great aunt, and now my father has hit me the hardest.

What makes their deaths somewhat bearable is my belief in an afterlife. In fact, I have received "signs" from each of them. The first was my sister in 2007. She sent me three messages. Two days after she died I received a fortune cookie that read in English and Chinese: "Miss you." I knew it was from her.

A week or so later, I had dinner with an old friend who was in town who comforted me and allowed me to cry and share my feelings of loss. On the way home I saw a license plate that read "4U Joan." I knew it was another sign from my sister.

A year later on her birthday we had a sprinkling of her ashes on the trail and woods of where she used to walk her dog. As I was driving there, the song "Sisters" came on the radio. We both used to sing that to each other. I knew it was sent by her. How could it not be? A tune from 1954 on a contemporary music station? I had never heard that song on the radio before, and I have never heard it since. I broke down in tears and I still do today when I think of that moment.

A few days after my father died as I was on my way to perform a concert, I got behind a car whose license read "ThankU." I started bawling like a baby because I knew it was from him. He had often expressed his appreciation for my taking him into my home the last two years of his life. This message confirmed for me there is an afterlife and my dad is there even though he was a self-proclaimed atheist toward the end of his years.

Losing my dad has gotten me in touch with the loss of my mom, who died from Alzheimer's disease. When a loved one slips away from you over the course of 17 years, death can almost be a relief. But that doesn't make it any less sad.

She is still with me, and my memories are of the earlier years when she was well and full of life. A few weeks ago, in my mind I half jokingly asked her why she hadn't sent me a license plate message.

Wouldn't you know it? Two days later I saw a license that read "Sadness." At first I thought, what an odd plate! Then it hit me that it was from my mom. It is just like her to send me a meaningful life message, teacher that she was.

I interpreted it to mean I need to get in touch with this incredible sorrow I was experiencing over losing so many close to me, starting with my mom. The depth of emotions can be so overwhelming that I found I often had tried to avoid the grief that has been building within my mind, body, and soul. I also instinctively knew that I needed to feel the pain to release it.

A few days later, that opportunity arose in unexpected ways. I went to a garage sale in New Jersey, where I bought some CDs for a dollar each. One was Enya, another Sarah McLachlan.

I had a rehearsal and concert that day in south Jersey, and during the break in between, I listened to the Enya CD. The very first song was so comforting and poignant that I immediately started to think of my dad and feel sad. Then as I was parked near a Wawa, I saw an older woman going into the store who looked and walked like my great aunt (who passed in 2011). That was it. The tears came like a dam bursting. I cried like a baby for at least 10 minutes.

My great aunt had always put me up whenever I played with the symphony because she lived nearby, and the memories came flooding back. She was a fellow musician (pianist) and we were very close. Even though I had attended her funeral, it never occurred to me that I had never fully mourned her loss until that moment.

Later that evening I stayed with her daughter-in-law, and I shared my experience of profound grief brought about by all of these seemingly-related events. This encouraged her to share with me her times of care taking her husband, mother, grandmother and my great aunt. We had a bawling session together. We were up until 2 a.m., but it was very therapeutic.

Speaking of unusual happenings: My best friend I and were driving up Route 95 in Philadelphia on our way to New Jersey to visit my great aunt just before she died. We turned on the traffic report and heard this strange voice of an announcer neither one of had ever heard before talking about the re-opening of a ramp near Gustine Lake. We both thought we had picked up a frequency from an out-of-town station because we knew of no such lake or ramp.

We both started laughing about it, and neither of us have heard of Gustine Lake ramp or the voice of that announcer on the radio since. Later I looked it up online and it seems it was a man-made lake (1932-1950) near East Falls that the public used for swimming in the summer (before air conditioning) and ice skating in the winter. It was later drained, and a swimming pool put in its place.

As a child, my great aunt lived for a time in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, which is not too far from East Falls. My guess is that she swam and skated on Gustine Lake as a youth. Odd coincidence that we heard the announcement of the reopening of that ramp as we were going to visit my great aunt for the last time?

No more odd than my sis sending me the "Sisters" song or my dad thanking me or my mom telling me to deal with my sadness. Sarah had it right that sadness can be "glorious" and "drive you to your knees." But that can be a good thing, and we just have to be open to its healing power.

For more by Joan E. Dowlin, click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.

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