Pixar’s Inside Out is an amazing film, and I’ll get into exactly what I think about it later. But for now I want to talk about one perfect moment of many in the movie because I keep thinking about it recently. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry — I won’t spoil too much about the plot or anything. It’s a small thing, but like the best emotional beats it opens directly to the heart of things when you look into it.
The premise is that the emotions we all experience — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust — are people whose job it is to make sure our emotions influence us to take action when necessary. Each emotion has a situation it’s designed for, and Joy (our main character) is really dedicated to making sure her person has the happiest life. This, of course, puts her in direct conflict with Sadness.
A character that Joy and Sadness meet while traveling suffers a loss that affects him deeply, and Joy can’t seem to snap him out of the funk he’s in. Exasperated, she steps away; Sadness sits next to him and encourages him to talk about what’s upsetting him, getting him to move through his pain instead of avoiding it. Once he’s had a good cry, he stands up and announces he’s ready to move on. After that, Joy realizes Sadness’ purpose — the pain we experience allows us to have empathy for others, to help them move through pain that can feel unbearable at times.
This first week of May was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. My sister was the one person who would have gotten me to go back to my hometown of Baltimore, and her sudden hospitalization found me on a plane there without hesitation. I got the call on Friday morning, arrived early Saturday, and saw my mother for the first time in 19 years that day. The next day, I met the father of Teneka’s children and my two oldest nephews for the first time.
That was the day we were gathered in a conference room with a small team of doctors and social workers and told that my sister was brain dead. My heart broke, not just for my loss, but for the loss of my nephews’ mother, my mother’s daughter, my brother’s partner in life. Our grief in that room connected us, as painful as it was; I can’t speak for anyone else, but being comforted and being able to comfort my family made me feel just a tiny bit better.
The following week was a struggle to absorb the twin tragedies of my sister’s passing and the cold realization of how much my mother’s health had deteriorated over time. She was a small but ice-hard woman, and she kept a clean home. Walking into the house I grew up and being hit by the smell and sight of what it had become is a shock I won’t forget. As soon as I saw her, lying in her bed, I knew that I would do anything to get her out of there and into a better situation.
My husband paused, allowed himself to recover, then immediately went to work helping her. His aunt did the same when she drove with me to help prepare for my sister’s memorial service. I hadn’t seen my mother since the day she told me not to come back all those years ago. Ryan only knew of her through the stories I told him about my upbringing. His aunt had never met her — she was a country girl from Arkansas stepping in to an inner-city home for the first time.
None of that mattered. Time and again, I found myself helped through this terrible time by friends and family stepping up to share my grief and take on a burden that wasn’t theirs. When someone else needed my help, I stepped in without hesitation. Knowing that there were so many others who would do — who had done — the same for me made it easy.
Over the week I was in Baltimore, I was able to heal the rift with my mother — who loved my husband, by the way. I was able to meet my nephews for the first time, and get close to someone who loved Teneka as much as I did. Our family came together in a way they hadn’t in quite some time, and I forged a bond with friends and neighbors that allowed me to reclaim my past. Most importantly, the beautiful, graceful connections that we formed helped ensure that my grief for my sister was tempered with an appreciation for her life and all of the people she had touched.
Our ability to feel pain is also our ability to feel empathy. We can know what it’s like to lose someone and reach out in ways that can genuinely help ease their suffering. As hard as it was to deal with everything back in my hometown, I keep going back to the people I bonded with, the deep and lasting connections we formed, all of those times where love filled the room and allowed us to be open and honest and kind. I feel sad, and I will for a long time. But I also feel incredibly fortunate to have the friends and family I do, the support that carried me through all of this, the ability to witness the best in people.
Even in heavy grief, my heart feels lifted by gratitude. I don’t know that I can express how much I appreciate the kind words and deeds of everyone who reached out over the past few weeks. Thank you all, for everything you’ve done.