I have recently started reading a powerful book called Bittersweet by Susan Cain where she asks her readers to dig deep into experiences of longing, poignancy, and sorrow and find meaning in them.  She highlights that making meaning of these experiences allows us a greater sense of awareness of who we are, what and who is important to us, and how being aware of the passage of time in our lives can serve as a motivational force.  Cain begins her book with a description of the cellist Vedran Smailovic, also known as the cellist of Sarajevo.  In 1992 Sarajevo was in the grips of a destructive bloody civil war.  Smailovic sits among the wreckage of a bombed-out bakery, dressed in formal white shirt and black tails playing the hauntingly beautiful Albinoni’s Adagio.  Twenty-two people were killed in the bakery.  He plays at the bakery for 22 days in honor of each of the people who were killed there while bullets fly all around him.

This compelling narrative illustrates one of the significant polarities explored in the book.  In pain, there can be beauty.  Each of us experiences this when we lose someone close to us when we laugh at a memory at a funeral or bond with others around us in memory of the person we lost.  Cain invites us to explore how our own experiences of emotional pain can increase our compassion for others.  She informs us that our own experiences with longing, grief, and loss can be beautiful, though they are painful.

American society tends to be fast-paced, pushing us along and encouraging us not to delve into our own painful experiences.  We are expected to go back to work quickly after we lose someone close to us, and to “get over” it.   We get the subtle message to stop talking about our losses after a brief period of time and to get on with our lives. In counseling practice with my clients, I frequently work with clients on how to sit with their painful experiences and help them explore new existential meanings that come from them.  Good counselors don’t rush their clients out of their pain and instead help them process it. 

Cain invites us to explore the creativity that can come from coping with emotional pain and reminds us that sorrow, longing, homesickness has motivated great works of art, music, and poetry.  Longing for something or someone can create momentum because we often feel compelled to do something with our longing.  Longing can also help us feel closer to the person for which we long.  Grieving can be seen as a way of honoring the relationship we had with the object of our loss. Perhaps finding the beauty in these experiences, as Cain suggests will help us heal from them and allow us a deeper understanding of loss as a part of life.

I encourage you to read this book and allow yourself to be touched by it.  Ask yourself, what do you do with your own painful experiences? How do you make meaning of them? How can you use these experiences in your life to bring you closer to others?

About Dr. Katherine Helm

Katherine is a Chicagoland native, professor, and psychologist who enthusiastically wants to help people have strong mental health and healthy, fulfilling relationships. Katherine is a licensed psychologist with over 24 years of experience working with adolescents, adults, couples and groups in multiple clinical settings including college counseling, psychiatric hospitals, community mental health, and private practice. She has authored multiple books on working with couples, sex education for high school and college students, and mental health issues in the African American community. Currently, she is the Director of a Clinical Mental Health Graduate Programs for Lewis University. You can learn more about her areas of expertise at:

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