Zia Hassan

How To Be Sad

My Nani (maternal grandmother) passed away last night.

I’ve been working on something lately in therapy, which is learning how to be sad. It turns out that for most of my life, I’ve avoided the feeling of sadness. Often I’ll skip over sadness and go directly to anger, or I’ll sidestep it and go to a distraction or drug.

For someone like me, who feels so deeply most of the time, it seems odd that I can’t even relate to the feeling of being truly sad. Sadness has always been like the edge of a foggy cliff for me. I don’t know how deep it goes, and I’m averse to learning more.

Or maybe it’s more like a space on a board game, and I know what it feels like to land on it, but only briefly before moving on. I rationalize the skipping, and sometimes the rationalizations make a lot of sense.

Like, before we boarded the plane for my aunt’s funeral almost a year ago, I told Dezi through the walls of the womb: This is how it goes, Dez. Someone new comes along and someone else has to exit. There’s not enough space in the room and not enough room in space.

It’s true but it’s a skip.

I want to commit to being sad. Not forever but for longer than I usually do. I don’t know exactly what that means and there’s no way anyone can prescribe it.

But I do know that what I remember about my Nani the most vividly were the fragrances. The perfumes she wears, if I ever I smell them in public it will take me right back into her arms when I was a baby. Or the smell of her entire apartment filling up with maple syrup and French toast. Or chicken corn soup. Or the windows open in June, with the perfect scent of flowers wafting in.

This is where my Nani lives now for me, in the fragrances of the world and the kitchen. There are some who have passed whose words I remember, whose advice still rings in my head. But she transcends all of that, she comforts in the way that a garden comforts. In the way that you can be in solitude, in a beautiful and fragrant place, and still somehow feel like you’re not alone.

I used to think of life and death as two sides of the same coin but maybe life is a bridge between two types of non-existence. In our culture’s funerals, the men huddle together and a core group hold up the coffin, which is heavy. We take turns, passing the coffin to new hands, while others take a break and walk alongside. Then those original carriers take their duties back as the current group gets tired.

When carrying the body becomes too much to bear, we pass on the duties to someone else. And life is like that too.

We keep carrying those we’ve lost physically in our hard drive heads. We immortalize through art and food and fragrance. And like the men who carry bodies to burial, we move on, we eat lunch, we read, we write, and in doing so, we share the burden of being alive with all that ever were.