‘Sadness has come to live with me
and I am building it a shelter.
I am building a shelter for my sadness
and welcoming it inside.’
A small boy creates a shelter for his sadness, a safe space where Sadness is welcome, where it can curl up small, or be as big as it can be, where it can be noisy or quiet, or anything in between. The boy can visit the shelter whenever he needs to, every day, sometimes every hour, and the two of them will cry and talk or just sit, saying nothing.
And the boy knows that one day Sadness may come out of the shelter, and together they will look out at the world, and see how beautiful it is.
‘A Shelter for Sadness’ – a special piece by Anne Booth.
In October 2017, four months after my dad died, I went to a series of evening talks about Faith, Hope and Love at my church, and one night there was a quote from Etty Hillesum,who, we were told, had died in the Holocaust. The quote, which is at the beginning of ‘A Shelter for Sadness’, is reproduced at the beginning of the book:
‘Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge-from which new sorrows will be born for others-then sorrow will never cease in this world. And if you have given sorrow the space it demands, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich.’ (Esther ‘Etty’ Hillesum (15 Jan 1914 – 30 Nov 1943)
When I came home from the talk I couldn’t stop thinking about Etty Hillesum and her idea of giving sorrow shelter. It seemed so wise and was such a beautiful image. The first line ‘Sadness has come to visit me, and I am building it a shelter,’ came into my mind, and then I sat down and wrote it all.
I think the picture book text may have been written quickly, but it came after years of reflection on sorrow, the type of sorrow or grief that can’t be fixed and has somehow to be lived with, and which everyone, I think, experiences in one way or another, and children no less than adults.
I think it is amazing that I wrote this in October 2017, but that it is being published in 2021, during a pandemic. Once Templar accepted it, they knew that they wanted David Litchfield to illustrate it, but David had so much work that we had to join a queue! It seemed such a long time to wait, but it feels like perfect timing now in this time of pandemic when so many of us feel sad about our own experiences, but also because we are seeing other people suffer.
However, even without Covid-19, Sadness will always visit us in one form or another.
Many of us feel sad about the destruction of the natural environment. Sadness may come from personal tragedy, from bereavement, or illness, or long-term family or relationship breakdown, or simply from being in the middle of a world-wide pandemic. Sadness can come from big things and so called little things. A child’s birthday party being cancelled because of Covid-19 may not be the equivalent of a bereavement, but it is a real sadness nevertheless, and also needs to have a shelter.
As adults we know that we can feel sorrow because we have lost someone we loved, but we may also feel sorrow because we have lost someone we didn’t love enough, and we feel it is too late to put it right. Sorrow can come from our own suffering caused by others, as in the huge, unimaginable sorrow Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who died in the Holocaust, suffered, but we also know the sadness of suffering we havebrought upon ourselves. That can be very hard to let ourselves build a shelter for, but we must.
When I was a child growing up something very sad happened in our family, but as a child I had no permission or space to talk about it or say that I was affected by it, and I had a great desire to put things right without any ability to change the situation, and, as many children do, felt guilty about and somehow responsible for others’ sadness, even though I wouldn’t have been able to say that at the time. The effect of not having a shelter for the sadness I felt, was to make me a very anxious child, always trying to put things right, to be a very good girl and not cause any trouble. I don’t think I really understood how sad I was – I know I was ill and missed school a lot, and I had asthma, which for me I think was partly linked to stress, and I know that I felt relief when I cried a great deal when reading books like ‘Anne of Green Gables’. I know how important children’s books can be to help us get in touch with our feelings, and I still read them now for that reason.
Later I experienced a lot of sorrow as a carer for my parents, particularly my mother when she had dementia and depression, but THIS time I was immeasurably helped by my GP telling me about a trainee psychotherapist who needed to work with people for her course. Every week – and sometimes twice a week – for years, I would go to see her in her space, and, unlike in my childhood, I would feel safe enough to talk about my sadness, to let myself notice it and feel it and cry and let it all out – and then I would be able to go home, enjoy being with my husband and children and dogs, and carry on looking after my parents. Sometimes, when things were particularly difficult looking after my parents, I didn’t feel sad, I felt numb, nothing at all, because I felt so sad, I pushed it down so I could manage, but this wasn’t healthy as I ate too much chocolate, I couldn’t write, I watched rubbish TV, and then I would suddenly feel angry, not sad, and snap or shout at my poor family for trivial things. Then at my next visit, skilful questioning and the safe space my lovely therapist Helen gave me as she listened, allowed me to accept my feelings again, and then I felt sadness again, not just from my experiences during my caring duties, but from my childhood. In being able to see it, accept it, feel it fully and weep and not feel ashamed of it, but also learn not to be defined or overpowered by it, I also felt more alive, and was able to go back to my husband and children and parents and apologise for being grumpy, and experience happiness and live and love again. I learnt that I had to give a shelter to my sadness whenever it needed it, so that I could truly say ‘life is beautiful and so rich’ and to give my family a chance to be happy too. The good news is that once you have a Shelter for Sadness, you also have space for happiness again.
I hope that this book will help children and adults know that it is good to build a shelter for their Sadness, however big or small it is.
More information about Etty Hillesum here:
Chris Chapman, the writer and speaker who introduced me to the quote, and to whom I have dedicated the book, has a website here: https://www.christopherchapmanspirituality.co.uk
Thank you Anne for sharing such personal insights into some of the sadnesses you have experienced in your life and how talking to others and reading books has helped you to work through those feelings.
As soon as I saw ‘A Shelter for Sadness,’ I knew that it was something very special indeed. Children feel every emotion so keenly, but they very often lack the vocabulary to describe them. Books are key to equipping children with the emotional intelligence to recognise and process their feelings.
What sets this story apart from others is the fact that it encourages readers to make space for their emotions and sit with them for a while. Recognising when you are feeling sad and allowing yourself however much or little time you need to deal with that is a powerful tool.
David Litchfield’s stunning illustrations beautifully highlight the key themes of Anne Booth’s moving story – how sadness can change with the seasons, how it is possible to feel happy even when there is a sadness inside you.
In a time when children are experiencing extended periods of isolation, loneliness and loss, books such as this will be key in helping them express how they are feeling.
*Many thanks to Templar Publishing for inviting me to be part of this blog tour. Make sure you take a look at the other stops too*