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Learning To Be Happy Again

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This fall will be four years since my daughter died suddenly. Even though our grief-fearing and pain-avoiding society seems to feel that I should have "moved on" long ago, I still struggle with it daily. Thankfully I have more good days than bad days at this point, but it has taken some time and a lot of grief work along to get here. I know that I have a long road ahead of me still. One of the ways I work through my grief is to write about it. Earlier this year I started contributing to the site Open to Hope (www.opentohope.com). I just submitted an article about how when we lose a child, the idea of smiling or being happy again seems impossible. It is a bit long, but I'm including it here in hopes it might give some others with grief that is new some hope that what they are feeling is normal and will eventually allow themselves to be happy again.

Learning How to Smile Again

When my daughter died, the pain was so overwhelming, the thought that I could ever feel any ounce of happiness again seemed ridiculous. In those early days of grief, the mere idea of being happy didn’t just feel impossible, it felt wrong.

During the first year after her death, I recall an evening when my husband insisted I sit down with him and our three boys and watch a funny show on TV that we had watched regularly as a family for years. My husband was able to recognize that in the wake of their sister’s death, our boys needed life to return to as “normal” as possible in order for them to cope and feel safe, and that didn’t just mean regular daily routines – it meant a return to the personal interactions with us that they had been used to.

Begrudgingly, I sat down to watch the show. During the show, something was so funny that for the first time since her death, I actually felt the urge to laugh. Instead of laughing, I actually bit the inside of my cheeks to force myself NOT to smile. At that time, the idea that I could ever be happy again felt like a betrayal of my daughter.

The logic (or lack thereof) went something like this: if I allowed myself to be happy, it would mean that I was okay with the fact that she had died. Looking back, I think the self-imposed state of misery served several purposes.

First, it was a matter of basic survival. The pain of losing a child is so overwhelming and so intolerable; many people say they feel numb early on. I think it is similar to the body’s natural defense mechanism of passing out while experiencing physical pain that is completely overwhelming. When the initial numbness started to wear off after about three months after her death, I tried to maintain it by suppressing my emotions. Since I couldn’t pick and choose, that meant trying to suppress ALL emotions, not just the pain and guilt. In reality, this misguided effort only suppressed everything BUT the pain and guilt.

Second, when my daughter died, life as I knew it ended. I was living in a world that suddenly felt alien and intolerable. Not only did I feel like I could never be happy again, I felt outright angry that people around me were happy. To smile, laugh, and have fun again felt like it would mean that there was no longer the possibility that I would wake up from this nightmare I was in. It would mean that I would have to accept that she really did die and life really did go on without her.

In a convoluted way, the pain had become the biggest connection I had to my daughter. I could no longer see her, touch her, hold her, or hear her sweet voice. Family and friends stopped talking about her because it had become too painful for them. The pain of missing her was what kept her present in my thoughts almost every minute of my waking hours. It’s what I talked about at the support groups I went to. Talking about her was painful because she was no longer here, but it meant I was still talking about her and acknowledging the continuing importance of her place in my life and in my heart.

Before my daughter died, I had heard several times the old adage that those who have died wouldn’t want to see their surviving loved ones living in sorrow and misery. I don’t think I fully understood or appreciated what that meant until I was faced with it myself. Sorrow and pain will come no matter what. However, we can unknowingly allow ourselves to get stuck in it because it may feel like the only connection we still have to the loved one we lost.

Over time, the notion of happiness as a betrayal of my daughter faded. At some point, I gave myself permission to smile and to be happy again. I don’t think there was any specific moment I can pinpoint, but instead, it was a slow realization that life was going to go on without her physically here whether I liked it or not. It helped that I still had four other children – one born after she died – and the joy and happiness that they bring into my life is undeniable.

The pain of losing her has not gone away, but it does not occupy as much room as it once did. Just like I have chosen to allow myself to smile and be happy again, I have chosen to focus less on my daughter’s death and more on the happy memories of my daughter’s life. I choose love and happiness, and can’t think of a better way to honor her memory.

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This post will be very helpful to other who lose a child, one of the hardest losses one can ever face...the one we all dread.

I am sorry for your loss. I know that grief is on-going although we get better at coping, I truly hate the term "moving on" because I don't think that's something that someone who loves someone can do when they lose them. This isn't like a break up where you "move on"! Acceptance is one thing, moving on is something else. How do you move on from someone irreplaceable dying? To me, that term has no place in grief recovery. And recovery is an on-going process, not something you're suddenly over and done with.

As many of us have learned, it is possible to experience joy after loss, and it begins with giving ourselves permission to. It is not the same as "before", but we learn to appreciate what IS and be present more appreciatively.

I applaud your post, thank you!

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Your post is wonderful, Maria, filled with the hard-won wisdom of your own experience. Thank you for sharing it with all of us here.

If you are willing to grant me reprint permission, I'd love to post your piece on our Grief Healing Blog, as another in our Voices of Experience series. (To get a sense of the series, just go to the blog, www.griefhealingblog.com, then on the right side, scroll down to Labels / Click to Choose a Label, then in the drop-down list that appears, scroll down to Voices of Experience, and you'll see a list of all our members' past entries; click on any one of them to read.)

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And let me add, what a darling little girl in your avitar.

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I'm so sorry to hear about the loss of your daughter - I recently became a mom and can't imagine that pain. My losses are very recent still, and I am struggling to get through the days. I am trying really hard to relearn to be happy, and these words were so helpful. Thank you.

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