Grieving With Joy
When grief entered my life, it became a part of who I was. At first, the person I already was when I began grieving shaped what my grief looked and felt like, but then, the grief started to shape me. As my grief shifted and changed over time, I changed with it. I molded myself around it, I adapted to carrying it, and I learned to live with it, allowing it to become part of me. When grief became a part of me, it combined with the other elements of me, including the joy.
It floated over me like a storm cloud, tethered to my every movement, showering me in darkness and despair.
When I first started carrying my grief, it wasn’t much work. It floated over me like a storm cloud, tethered to my every movement, showering me in darkness and despair. After a while, it shifted and became a weight that I carried with me. It wasn’t constantly looming over me anymore, but it was still close enough that I wasn’t free of it. I used all of me, my body and soul, to carry it around. Still, later on, it transformed again. I didn’t have to carry it anymore because it had attached itself to a part of me that was fundamental. It wound and twisted and wrapped itself up with my joy, and they became woven together. This is still how I carry my grief; it lives in me and remains intertwined with the joy that lives there too.
It has been 10 years since Sean died and I’m still surprised by how tangled together my joy and grief are. This mixture has shown itself in many situations, particularly in moments connected to our daughters. All of their “firsts” were riddled with that intoxication of emotion; first steps, first words, first days of school. Simple things like school programs, new haircuts, movies shown from my childhood, family recipes baked and consumed, the discovery of new favorite hobbies, family vacations, the removal of training wheels accompanied by skinned knees, the adorable slaughtering of lengthy and complicated words that little mouths can’t quite form, silly dances in the kitchen waiting for water to boil on the stove, flipping through photo albums and watching home videos, all of these things were experienced and committed to memory through a fusion of grief and joy. These day-to-day moments, these minutes that make up life don’t exist for me without celebration and revelry tethered to the solemn longing caused by heartache. I am truly haunted by the effort to balance gratitude and grief.
This dichotomy, this appreciation and thankfulness for the amazing life I have that is so steeped in mourning, is confusing and exhausting. Sometimes there is a resistance in me, and I feel guilt and shame that I can’t just take the beautiful moments as they are without allowing the sadness to creep in. Other times I am defiant and determined to accept every modicum of emotion that is in my heart and I am unapologetically devastated to be happy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, though, over the last decade other than the fact that these parts of me are so connected, it’s that this struggle with emotion, this inner turmoil and torment that I put myself through, along with the emotions themselves, are valid. The mindfulness that it takes to keep moving is taxing, but the knowledge that the fatigue is legitimate, even normal, is comforting and I wish I had recognized it sooner.
Living this way is hard. It is certainly challenging and it’s not always pleasant. It doesn’t come naturally. It is a massive amount of work and I do not pull it off gracefully. Before grief became a part of me, I may have been able to separate it out from other emotions, but as my grief has changed me, I have learned how to experience two conflicting states of being, opposite, but in sync with each other. I’ve learned to embrace happiness even when it is sharp with pain. I will always insist on laughing at the silly moments that are engineered by my wild children, even when I miss hearing Sean’s laugh. I will continue to smile when his personality bursts out of them, even though it’s getting harder to remember what his smile looked like. I will keep fawning over baby pictures and recording home videos that he’s not in, and I will still look back on my life with him to gain perspective on the life I have without him. It is a life that is still blessed with the hope and happiness he gifted me.
There is never a happy memory of him that isn’t a companion to an ache, and there is never a flicker of grief over him that isn’t soothed by thankfulness for the ability to recall the memory. With each uncomfortable twinge, I am reminded that there was something worth grieving the loss of.
Sean’s death took something from me, but there are also parts of him that were left behind. These parts can be sharp, but they’re also shiny. Sometimes they cut, but they’re also reflective of the light and brightness and radiance in my life. I feel, viscerally, both agony over the parts of him that are gone and gratitude for experiencing those parts of him in the first place. There is never a happy memory of him that isn’t a companion to an ache, and there is never a flicker of grief over him that isn’t soothed by thankfulness for the ability to recall the memory. Pieces of him are still with me, and they do hurt, but with each uncomfortable twinge, I am reminded that there was something worth grieving the loss of.
My experience with Sean didn’t end with his death. It is still continuing. He continues to be a part of my grief and my joy. I cannot separate the two because he is in them both and even though he’s gone he is still a part of me. It took some time, but the happiness is now stronger than the grief, and it is powerful enough for me to lean on most days. I have joy in my life, and it is enough that the grief that is attached doesn’t destroy me anymore. I allow myself to feel the sting because that sting is a reminder of Sean, but it is not debilitating. In fact, those stings are welcome. Yes, there is grief tangled up with my joy now, and yes there is still pain that catches me off-guard when I find myself smiling, but that entanglement, that mesh of emotional conflict, is part of who I am now. Grieving with joy has changed me. Grieving with joy is changing me.
Photo courtesy of author.