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What Can You Do When Separation Makes You Sad?

Separation sadness hurts, but it's often a good sign. How can you handle it?

Key points

  • Separation sadness can be painful, but it's also a normal, healthy developmental step.
  • Separation sadness and grief are part of love and attachment.
  • Learning to live while also feeling separation sadness is a part of an emotionally healthy life.

Luisa* said that she is always sad when her grandchildren leave, or when she leaves them. “I cry for a few hours afterwards. My house feels so empty, and I feel so sad. It’s so painful, sometimes I think it’s not worth it to spend time with them.” What also made her sad, she said, was that her granddaughter also got upset when she and her family left Luisa’s home. “I think of her crying, and it makes me cry even more,” she said.

Amelia* cried when she put her son on the bus for camp. “I tried not to let him see,” she said. “I think when I have a hard time separating, it makes it harder for him. And I know he’s going to have a wonderful time. It’s just that I miss him so much.”

Donnel* said that he never misses anyone. “I love my family,” he said, “but it’s sort of ‘out of sight out of mind.’ When I’m not with them, I don’t think much about them. I just do what I need to do and I get focused on that, and on the people I’m with. And then when I’m with my family again, I’m happy to be with them.”

Becoming anxious about separation has long been recognized by developmental theorists as an important developmental stage of a child’s life.

Sadness at separation means that a child recognizes that people come and go and has learned to differentiate between themselves and others.

It also means that a child recognizes different levels of connectedness, or attachment, to others.

Separation anxiety and separation sadness are not the same as a separation anxiety disorder.

In a separation anxiety disorder, a child (and sometimes an adult) is so afraid of separation that they cannot engage in normal, healthy exploration of the world.

Unfortunately, some current thinking would have us believe that if a child is “securely attached” they will never develop any anxieties about separation; although I have never seen this written by an attachment researcher, I often hear from clients that they feel that either they or their parents failed because their child, or they, are distressed by separation.

Being distressed by separation from someone you love is not a bad thing, as long as you are able to recognize two things.

  1. You will be able to function and live your life despite the distress and
  2. You know that the feelings will come and go and will gradually diminish in intensity.

The role of object constancy

The capacity for object constancy, or object permanence, can help with this process. This is the ability to know that someone exists even when they are not visible to you. For Amelia, for example, object constancy helped her remind herself that her son was enjoying himself at camp, although she wasn’t there to watch. Even when a loss is permanent, as in death or the end of a relationship, object constancy can help you manage some of the feelings, in that you can remind yourself that the person “lives” in your memories of them.

Sadness and grief are part of love and attachment

Grief and loss, of course, are different from separation—or perhaps we could say they are special cases of separation. But no matter what you’re feeling, it's important to recognize that object constancy doesn’t make the feelings go away. Sadness and grief are part of the normal lexicon of human experience, and they are part of love and attachment, much as some of us wish they weren’t.

Managing your feelings

The key concept in this entire discussion is “managing your feelings,” which means living your life with those emotions as part of it. Some people believe that if you feel sad at separation, there is something wrong. No one can tell you that your feelings are wrong, but other people can help you keep living your life, and as you move on in your activities, other feelings will also start to move into your awareness, while the sad feelings move more into the background.

Donnel, for instance, believed that focusing on what he was doing when he was doing it was the “best” way to deal with separation. However, the truth is that there is no one right way to manage these emotions. Some of us feel sad for longer than others, or perhaps feel sad more intensely and actively than others. Some of us keep our feelings to ourselves, while others of us are more expressive. Some of us find it helpful to talk with someone else who feels similarly, while others prefer to be distracted by someone who doesn’t feel the same way that we do.

Living your life while also feeling sad

What’s important to remember is that separation sadness, and even separation anxiety, are signals of loving, attached relationships with others. If you are feeling sad, it is important to acknowledge the feelings and recognize that they represent a connection to another person. And then it is important to find ways to move forward in your life even while you’re feeling those emotions.

That’s how it often worked for Luisa. “I’m feeling sad,” she says, “like my heart is going to break. And then I talk to a friend or I take the dog for a walk. I clean the house. I get organized to go to work on Monday. And I start to feel better, and I can think about what a wonderful visit we had without falling apart. And when I talk with my granddaughter, I realize that she’s doing the same thing. We love each other, and we miss each other, and we feel sad; but we also both have good, rich, happy lives. So we talk, and we both feeling better. And we both look forward to the next time we see each other.”

*Names and identifying info changed for privacy


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