A common belief is that grief and bereavement kill all happiness. People who go through tragedy simply cannot be happy, right? I think that might be true for the darkest time after tragedy. I don’t want to put a length on this timeframe because this might feel different for everyone. This is a time when everything seems dark and without hope, the world is absolutely unfair and one cannot comprehend why it happened (and that will likely never change) and one might be angry at everyone and everything. Patience is running extremely low, nerves are blank. But people believe that this is normal because someone is grieving. However, common belief is as well that happiness will magically return at some stage, once one “is over it”. I have written a lot about this, but I have not yet tried to describe the actual feeling in a better way. My wife has done a pretty good job in her post titled “A smile and a tear” and my take on it goes along the same lines.
A more realistic description, at least for me, is that emotions are a lot closer together, overlap and change rapidly all the time. It is certainly not true that I cannot be happy even after losing both of our children. Of course our losses bring an immense amount of grief and sadness and I certainly do not have a similar positive outlook for the future that I had before. But at the same time I have found happiness in a lot of very little things. Maybe it would work to compare these levels of happiness to “life happiness” and “moment happiness”. On the small scale – in the moment – I would even say that I can appreciate a lot of things more that I previously would have just taken for granted. I can stop on the side of the road and appreciate the beauty of a small flower or smell the wonderful scent. Every single day I watch the hummingbirds in our garden and it brings me happiness. I just love these little birds. There is happiness right there. I do not exist in a happiness vacuum or an emotional black hole that sucks up all those feelings. What is difficult is how I perceive happiness and what it triggers. And I don’t think that this is a particular situation only for parents who lost a child. I believe this might apply in any grief situation, e.g. loss of a spouse, sibling, close friend or similar. I have noticed two things:
- Whenever there is a moment of happiness, there might be a moment of guilt. Guilt for having felt happy, guilt for thinking that it is not okay to be happy given the circumstances. Maybe this is even a result of such common belief that grief has to be a time without happiness.
- Moments of happiness can turn extremely quickly into moments of sadness. Actually, that is the wrong description. It does not turn, both emotions coexist. When I think about it, it even sounds logical. Most people I know want to share something joyous, an achievement or happiness with the people who are most important to them. Things would just not be as great if you had noone to share it with. And this is where loss and grief really hit home. Because we cannot share it with such a beloved person and that sucks.
Here is an example: our first son Marlon would be a little older than two years by now. He would be running around and explore this world. When I look at our hummingbirds, I can feel happiness. But then I might imagine how I would pick my son up, lift him up to see better and point out the beautiful birds to him. This moment would be so much more meaningful with him being there. And this is what hurts because it will never be this way except in my imagination.
We have not only lost our children, we have lost true, pure happiness – something often described as a state of naivity, or maybe even words such as carefree, pristine, unspoilt might do. This mental freedom one might have at a younger age when the reality of life has not caught up with us. For the rest of our lives our children are missing, a part of us is missing, and they cannot enjoy things together with us as a family. What is left to us is tainted happiness – the feeling of happiness infused with a sting of pain because we are not able to share magical moments.
“Though I experienced death, I also experienced life… not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness. I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within that pain the grace to survive and eventually grow. I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.” – Jerry Sittser