At the beginning of the novel, Mack suffers under the weight of The Great Sadness, the depression he feels at the loss of his youngest daughter, Missy, who was murdered on a family camping trip. Understandably, Mack wants negative emotions about her death to vanish. But when Mack spends a weekend with incarnations of God, the son, and the Holy Spirit in the form of Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu, he learns to face his emotions rather than bury them. God helps Mack see that “bad” emotions, including sadness, are necessary, and that working through emotions is a worthwhile process. It is necessary for Mack to talk about and embrace his pain in order to understand and appreciate his joy.
In the novel, the suppression of emotions is a defense mechanism for dealing with tragedy. However, the only way to begin the process of healing is to address these underlying emotions, even if doing so is painful. Mack experiences the loss of his daughter as an overwhelming force that he calls The Great Sadness, which keeps Missy’s memory—but also Mack’s sense of guilt over her death—alive. The stifling nature of The Great Sadness keeps Mack from experiencing a full range of emotions, and, it follows, from enjoying beautiful things like a snowy day or the moon’s reflection on a lake. Kate, Mack’s oldest daughter, is experiencing a depression of her own, believing she caused Missy’s death because she had distracted Mack when Missy was kidnapped. Notably, it is only when Mack confronts Kate and forces her to get those emotions out in the open that she starts to heal. Mack, too, is able to lift The Great Sadness only when he addresses and combats the underlying issues that are causing it, including his sense of guilt over Missy’s death.
At first, however, as The Great Sadness lifts, Mack begins to feel a surge of negative emotions that he wishes he could suppress. But with Papa’s help, Mack begins to see that these emotions can provide useful insights into understanding why he has made certain choices and how he relates to those around him. For example, initially, Mack wishes he could avoid nightmares and even considers suicide as an escape from the sadness he feels. But slowly, when he starts to talk about his feelings with Papa, Sarayu, and Jesus, he starts to see that it is necessary for him to wade into and process these negative emotions in order to begin the process of healing.
Mack also avoids talking about emotions with those he loves, which creates distance between them. Indeed, Mack initially tells himself that he didn’t tell Nan that he was returning to the shack, the place Missy was murdered, because he didn’t want to worry his wife. But with Papa’s help, Mack realizes that he lied to Nan in order to avoid having talk about the sense of doubt and hope that they both would have felt about receiving a message from God inviting them to return to the scene of the crime. Mack also apologizes for crying so much over the course of the weekend with Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu, saying that he hates that he is so full of tears. However, Papa says that tears are an important part of life and can be signs of joy as well as sadness. In these ways, God encourages Mack to face emotions that may be difficult.
In addition to allowing himself to feel a full range of emotions, it is important for Mack to try to understand why he feels what he does. Sarayu impresses upon Mack that part of the reason emotions can be so confusing is that they flow from perceptions, which are in turn shaped by certain paradigms or deeply-held beliefs. In order to understand why some emotions feel bad and to trust those that are useful, it is necessary for Mack to think about his own beliefs; he must learn to stop parsing what is “good” or “evil,” and instead leave such judgments to God. Sarayu later gives Mack the ability to see as God sees, at which point he observes a group of human beings filled with light—children emit a white light, while a circle of adults surrounding them emit lights of various colors, reflecting their more complex range of emotions. One being’s light is particularly erratic, reflecting his volatile emotional state; this turns out to be Mack’s father, and only upon acknowledging the guilt and pain both men feel are they able to embrace and forgive each other.
Over the course of the weekend, Mack goes from feeling numb, to wishing he could eradicate the onrush of negative emotions he has excavated surrounding Missy’s death, to realizing that it is necessary to feel, think about, and analyze the source of such negative emotions in order to turn them into something useful. After spending the weekend with Papa, Sarayu, and Jesus, Mack is able to do just that—to see the source of his emotions, both positive and negative, and understand how they influence his relationships and choices.
Grief and Emotion ThemeTracker
Grief and Emotion Quotes in The Shack
“When we’re around family she seems to come out of her shell some, but then she disappears again. I just don’t know what to do. I’ve been praying and praying that Papa would help us find a way to reach her but”—she paused again—“it feels like he isn’t listening.”
Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness had draped itself around Mack’s shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt. The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders. Even his efforts to shake it off were exhausting, as if his arms were sewn into its bleak folds of despair and he had somehow become part of it.
“If you couldn’t take care of Missy, how can I trust you to take care of me?” There, he’d said it—the question that had tormented him every day of The Great Sadness. Mack felt his face flush angry red as he stared at what he now considered to be some odd characterization of God, and he realized his hands were knotted into fists.
“Your question presumes that poison is bad, that such creations have no purpose. Many of these so-called bad plants, like this one, contain incredible properties for healing or are necessary for some of the most magnificent sonders when combined with something else. Humans have a great capacity for declaring something good or evil, without truly knowing.”
“It is your desperate attempt to get some control over something you can’t It is impossible for you to take power over the future because it isn’t even real, nor will it ever be real. You try to play God, imagining the evil that you fear becoming reality, and then you try to make plans and contingencies to avoid what you fear.”
“Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver,” answered Papa, “to release you from something that will eat you alive, that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly. Do you think this man cares about the pain and torment you have gone through?”
Mack interrupted with a hand on her arm. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, honey. It wasn’t your fault.” Kate sobbed as her father’s words penetrated her war-ravaged heart. “But I’ve always thought it was my fault.”