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Understanding the Beauty of the Bittersweet

Susan Cain, author of the bestseller 'Bittersweet,' says instead of avoiding sorrow, we should see it as an opportunity to connect with others

By Randi Mazzella

I finally saw "CODA," which received the Academy Award winner for best picture earlier this year. Like many people who have seen the movie, I found myself crying as I watched this beautiful story about a deaf family and their hearing daughter. She is conflicted on whether or not to forge an independent path.

Two older adults embracing in a hug crying tears of joy. Next Avenue, Bittersweet, susan cain

When the movie was almost over, my husband walked into the room and saw me sobbing. Through my tears, I told him that the film was so good and he was a little confused. He couldn't fathom why I would want to watch something that made me so upset. I explained that the movie wasn't all sad. It was bittersweet.

In her new book, "Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole," currently on the New York Times bestseller list, author Susan Cain, who also wrote the critically acclaimed "Quiet," explains the power of bittersweet moments and why embracing the bittersweet parts of life could benefit people.

"Acknowledging our sorrows by talking about loss and grief honestly can be powerful and help us to connect with others."

In a recent interview with Next Avenue, Cain said, "When someone loses or fails, we call them a 'loser' as if it's something toxic, something to be avoided. As a culture, we have become overly invested in staying positive, focusing only on the good things."

But the effort to stay positive all the time may actually be hurting people. As Cain explained, "Acknowledging our sorrows by talking about loss and grief honestly can be powerful and help us to connect with others."

Defining Bittersweet

I would describe my own reaction to "CODA" as a "good cry" because it caused me to feel a powerful range of emotions. People have the same type of response to sad music or a rainy day. That combination of feelings is precisely what makes something "bittersweet"; it is both bitter and sad, as well as sweet and happy.

Cain explained, "In the movie 'CODA,' the filmmaker tells a personal story of one family. But the theme taps into a broader, very relatable pain of what it feels like for parents and children to let go of one another. It creates a sense of community; the idea of becoming an empty nester is unifying and the depiction of having to let go reminds the viewer of the impermanence of each stage of life."

In her book, Cain says that love has a dual nature; a positive and a negative.

She explained, "You have to love something a great deal to be so sad when it is gone. Realizing this type of love exists and what it feels like to experience it is why we mourn. It's also why we have the capacity to love again and believe new love will come into our life."

Bittersweet Moments Help Channel Creativity

Cain has always enjoyed listening to what others might call sad music. "Like many sensitive people, I don't find that type of music gloomy. Instead, I think it is beautiful and it makes me feel closer to joy," she said.

It isn't surprising that many famous songs and memorable works of art stem from bittersweet feelings. Songs about lost love are relatable to everyone.

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"Broken hearts can connect us," says Cain. "Instead of avoiding sorrow, what if we welcomed it? Allowing ourselves to experience the dark times can point us in the direction of what we truly long for in life. It's not about wallowing or falling into a depression but acknowledging the pain. Experiencing it is what helps you to heal."

Confronting Our Sorrows

When it comes to dealing with grief, many people have become stuck on the five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) model by Elisabeth Kübler Ross and David Kessler. But what is often misunderstood is that grief tends not to be linear, and that every person grieves differently. Some may stay in one stage for a long time, while others may skip one of these stages entirely.

Book cover of Bittersweet by Susan Cain

"The stages of grief were written in response to someone receiving a terminal diagnosis," said Cain. "It is inaccurate to try to use it as a step-by-step guide on how to grieve a loss or as a way to put pressure on ourselves to heal at a certain pace."

Cain believes when people are honest and allow themselves to feel grief, it helps them to be much more resilient.

"In the book, I speak about a TED Talk given by author Nora McInerny (widowed at age 31) where she asked other bereaved partners what advice about grief they most hate," Cain said. "The most common reply: the exhortation to 'move on.' McInerny explains you don't move on from the deceased loved one. Instead, you move forward with them. The person stays with you but in a different way."

Transitions are Part of Life

Transitions are a part of life, with some being joyous transitions, such as weddings or the birth of a baby, and some much more difficult, like deaths, illnesses and divorce.

As people age, there tend to be more upsetting transitions and yet, older adults are, for the most part, more content.

"Some might think it is because of the wisdom that comes with age, but that is a stereotype. A more likely reason is that older adults are more actively aware of the tranquility. They are more gratified and more at peace with their lives," said Cain.

"They understand the fragility of each life stage and it helps them focus on what matters and form meaning through a lens without denying the pain," she added.

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More
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