Finding Joy Again

Holiday candlesThe holidays are all about joy: carols of joy, expectations of joy, painful awareness of the lack of joy when something’s not right in your life.  If you’re grieving a loss, you might wonder if joy is ever possible again, when nothing is the way you expected it to be.

It’s been five holiday seasons since my husband died. Five times through the cycle of decorating, shopping, baking, socializing, and missing him. Even after five years, I can still find myself viewing my experience through the lens of loss: I’m picking out gifts for our daughter and wishing he were here to strategize with.  I’m choosing photos for our holiday cards and he’s not in any of them. I’m attending parties as a single person in a sea of couples. Each year has brought its own challenges and triumphs, from that first year when just surviving intact was my goal, to last year, when I finally broke with family tradition (my husband’s family, not mine!) and bought an artificial tree.

My triumph for this year snuck up on me. Around the Christmas dinner table, for the first time since Steve’s death, a warm, wonderful peace came over me.  I realized that I felt fully and completely blessed and content in my holiday celebrating.  I found myself not wishing things were different, not imaging how it would be if he were here, not feeling like I was making the best of a bad situation. The loved ones around the table weren’t all the ones I would have expected back when Steve and I were married, but they are my loved ones now. They are my family of choice, the people I have built my new life with, and in that moment I was filled with joy.

I strongly believe that peace, contentment, gratitude and joy for the life you have, even if it’s not the life you wanted or expected to have, is possible for you too.  It requires releasing that grip on what might have been, what should have been. The cliche is true: you can’t embrace what’s here now if you’re still holding on to what used to be. 

And it’s not a betrayal of your loved one, of your former life, of your belief in your ability to control your destiny. If I loved Steve and the life we built, if I felt that I had created that life consciously and with intent, how can I now be grateful for something completely different?

Because life doesn’t run on a single track like a train. There isn’t just one story line that can make you happy. If you can let go of expectations, there are many possible stories that end in joy. Let your current situation, regardless of how you got to it, be one of them, just for a moment. And just maybe you’ll find joy again.

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Out of Step

dead_tree_by_AelroWhen your loved one dies, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, changes for you.  Your loss is like a drop of food coloring stirred into your life’s batter – everything is colored by it.  You can’t open your eyes in the morning without knowing that he or she is gone. Memories of the past, plans for the future – oh so different now.  Your very identity is stamped with your loss in such a fundamental way that every experience is interpreted through the lens of grief.

So how do you interact with the rest of the world when their sun continues to rise and set, but yours has gone out? It’s like a giant gaping hole in the middle of everything that’s invisible to everyone but you. You may feel out of step, out of sync with those around you. You may be tempted to put up a pleasant front, or isolate yourself to avoid dealing with the constant pain of the disconnect.

Here’s the deal:  for just about everyone else, the event of the loss is a one-time thing.  Sad or traumatic, shocking or inevitable, they process the news and are then able to start moving on.   For you, however, the event is still unfolding.  You are in the middle of a slow-motion exploding of your world.  You aren’t working on getting over, moving past, because it’s still happening.  You are still noticing, experiencing, coming to terms with what it means to have him or her gone.

There’s no silver bullet, but there are some things that can help.  Make sure you have a safe place to go and just be, as often as you need to.  It might be a spot in nature, a bench at the local park, where you can close your eyes and be still.  Maybe it’s a corner of the living room where you’ve created a small alter to your loved one, with a photo, a candle, and a favorite item. Or perhaps you find pictures and mementos too painful, so hang an image that speaks of peace to you where you can look at it from your favorite chair. This safe place requires nothing of you, demands no interaction or engagement. Practice letting down your guard here and just being.

Humans are storytellers, and make sense of their world through talk.  Find at least one safe outlet for talking about your loss: a family member, a close friend, a grief support group or peer counselor, a therapist. A person or group with whom you can cry and rage, share memories and regrets, articulate what you’re learning about life without your loved one.

Of course, you have to be in the world, too.  And you may find that you get great comfort from the presence of others. Or it may sap all your energy to try and show up as “normal”. When interacting with friends, co-workers, and your community, be as honest as you can about how you are feeling.  Phrases like “up and down”, or “pretty good, given the circumstances” enable you to reflect on the truth, and open the door to empathy and support.  Try your best not to worry about how your mood or responses may impact others.  You might be afraid of being a downer, of surprising or shocking someone by bringing up your loss.  And it’s true – you might.  But the flip side is much more likely.  They will feel honored that you trusted them enough to be real and authentic.  You are giving the gift of vulnerability, bringing your whole self to the interaction, and that builds connection and intimacy.  At this time in your life, you can never have too much of that.

Why I Write

writing1This blog has been a long time coming.  Early in my own grieving process, after having lost my husband when we were in our 40’s, I captured my thoughts and feelings in a semi-anonymous blog where I could vent and lament, ponder and process.  The work of distilling my emotions into words, phrases, paragraphs on the page turned out to be of significant help in integrating my loss.  About two years out, though, I found I had less and less to say about grief, and my posts petered out to nothing.  The “new normal”, the life of my own hard-won reinvention efforts, was taking hold, and my experiences weren’t relevant to the context of that blog.

Fast-forward three years.  I’ve become a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, joyfully supporting individuals in their journeys to deeper self-awareness, growth, and reinvention.  I’ve also become a grief counselor, receiving deep satisfaction by accompanying bereaved men and women as they walk their unique path.  And I’m finding that my own experience, and those of the clients I work with, combined with my passion to ease the journey of grieving individuals, has resulted in an unstoppable urge to share my insights.

And so this blog was born.  It’s for you, whether you are grieving, or supporting someone else in grief, or interested in how grief is experienced and integrated and how it can be harnessed to invite growth and transformation.  If anything I say here strikes a chord or elicits thought, I hope you will join the conversation by leaving a comment.