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Death and happiness

Lebanese philosopher Khalil Gibran wrote, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked,” capturing an irony that’s been long known: life’s deepest happiness so often follows in the wake of loss or grief. Even today, the media provide easy access to stories of those who, having survived loss, grief and devastation, find themselves thriving.

Is it that despair always leads to happiness — or simply that, having experienced loss, you are better able to make the most of and appreciate all that follows? Either way, it seems there’s an integral place for the experience of grief in a happy life.

Throughout your life, you’re likely to experience a variety of “deaths” or losses. The end of a relationship or career can arouse feelings of grief and loss, as can changes in social networks. Serious illness and death of a loved one, including a beloved pet, can lead to a variety of intense feelings, perhaps including sadness, loneliness, anger, relief or guilt. Facing loss can also highlight the lack of control you have over some of life’s most meaningful experiences.

Writing in the early part of the 20th century, Khalil Gibran also noted, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain” — suggesting that learning to navigate loss, death and grief may be an important part of gaining deep happiness.

While you’re unlikely to be happy per se in the throes of loss, emerging theories around grief and grieving reveal the importance of self-care practices to support you through, and in some instances even help speed up, your healing process. Many experts agree that actively engaging in the experience of loss — talking about it, as well as feeling it — rather than suppressing the accompanying emotions is necessary to facilitate healing.

Life and loss

When dealing with grief it can be hard to accept that feeling low, lost or alone can be normal. Yet loss is part of life. It may not be the most pleasant part, but the contrast of bitter pain to sweet joy can help you appreciate life’s rich tapestry.

Hugh Mackay, psychologist, social researcher and author, comments, “Without sadness we would never know what happiness is. Yet we live in a society that has become scared of sadness and obsessive in its pursuit of the positive.”

While grief may seem like an anti-happy state, allowing yourself to feel the depths of pain as loss enters your life can add to the richness and joys that inevitably follow.

Says Mackay, “Happiness is just one among the many emotional states — some pleasant, some unpleasant — that we must learn to recognise and embrace as signs of our humanity. To be fully human, to be ‘normal’, is to be occasionally engulfed by waves of grief or sadness and stymied by feelings of despair, doubt or disappointment. Without all that, we’ll never know what happiness is.”

What is grief?

In their best-seller The Grief Recovery Handbook, John W James and Russell Friedman define grief as “the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind”.

Psychologists know that for the most part humans feel most comfortable when they believe they have a level of control and influence over life. When you experience loss, the resulting feelings around losing control must also be processed as part of healing.

James and Friedman’s definition of grief highlights an often forgotten principle of dealing with loss: that it’s normal to have a strong reaction — which in and of itself can vary — to unexpected or unwanted changes. Your life is likely built on routines, mostly of your own choosing, which create a sense of being in control. Until something shatters that belief, you carry on, like those around you, operating under the assumption that you’re living your life on your own terms, according to your own choices.

Accepting grief as a unique and real experience is one of the first steps in allowing yourself the space and time needed to experience the fullness of whatever loss has come your way. This requires acknowledging, even unconsciously, that the path through grief may also be out of your control. It requires developing an awareness of the subtler ebbs and flows within your being, a letting go of what you think you should be experiencing and an opening to what it is you’re experiencing and when.

Ritual and remembering

Grief is not a linear process. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s pioneering work on grief in the 60s and 70s brought widespread awareness to five unique stages of grief, while recent developments in grief healing suggest that grief is circular and more individual than first thought.

Not everyone experiences all of the classic five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Your journey through grief may involve just one or two stages, which you cycle through and repeat over time. Modern theories on grief also highlight the importance of personalised ritual on the healing and recovery process.

The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement recommends staying connected to the person you’ve lost. Your love for them doesn’t go away simply because they die or leave your life. Some of their suggestions to navigating grief include:

  • Create or keeping a memorial to your loved one.
  • Keep a journal or diary as expressing feelings and thoughts privately can be helpful.
  • Develop a personal ritual.
  • Stay active through exercise, gardening or other hobbies, especially those that are outdoors.
  • Read about the experiences of others.

Since in the world of grief there are no rules, your ritual around honouring your loss or remembering your loved one can be as individual as you like. The key is to create a ritual that you feel is meaningful, that somehow captures either the essence of what you feel you’ve lost, or pays homage to the person whose physical presence no longer fills your world.

Your rituals around remembering might include creating an altar in your living space, with a candle, photo or mementoes of your recently deceased. Others may offer their judgement — especially if you were to share that you, like many others suffering bereavement, find comfort in regularly talking to your deceased loved one — but allowing yourself to continue some kind of interaction, albeit in a revised format, with the person you’ve lost will help to ease your sense of loss, especially in the first few months when grief’s hold can seem especially intense. Or you might add an experience to your routine, like a visit to a meaningful location where you feel you can privately remember your loved one and express emotion without an audience.

The heart of ritual around grief is that you create quiet private space in which to acknowledge, and thus honour, what you’ve lost. Whether someone has died or a relationship or career has ended, being present to whatever feelings emerge, no matter how strange they may initially seem, helps you unpack the different layers of meaning you’d attributed to yourself as a result of what you had. This can lead you on a unique journey of self-discovery: a necessary criterion for true happiness.

Expressing emotion

In his extensive research on the links between stress, emotion and health, James W Pennebaker, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas, discovered that expressing emotion is critical to a full and timely recovery from loss and grief.

In a study conducted on adults who had experienced the death of a spouse, Pennebaker also discovered that those who talked about the loss and its resulting emotions experienced far fewer health problems following the death of a spouse compared to those who tried to put it out of their mind or avoid talking about it. Pennebaker’s research also noted links between expressing emotion and health, suggesting that discussing your grief not only helps you process loss, it also helps keep you healthy.

In her last book, cowritten with David Kessler shortly before she died, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross concurred: “Grief must be externalised. Our pain and sadness can be fully realised only when we release them. For many, writing letters to their loved one is a convenient, always available way to get the words out and communicate.”

Pennebaker’s research also highlights the healing power of writing. In his book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions he writes, “When people write about major upheavals, they begin to organise and understand them … When people confront traumas by talking or writing about them, their mental and physiological stress levels drop.”

If you are suffering grief, loss, trauma or major upheaval, research shows one of the simplest self-care practices you can begin is writing. All you need is pen, paper and some quiet alone time.

Staying present

In the first very popular Sex and the City movie, the main character Carrie Bradshaw is distraught after being jilted at the altar by her on-off lover, Big. Even through the medium of film, Carrie’s utter devastation and sense of betrayal — her grief — are palpable and visceral.

She wonders, “Will I ever laugh again?” to which Miranda responds, “When something is really, really funny.” And while nothing changes immediately, as time unfolds and something really funny happens — Charlotte pooping in her pants — she does laugh again.

Laughing again after loss doesn’t mean you’re automatically healed — grief is like waves that ebb and flow — but it can reflect an inner shift. Though you’ve not forgotten your loss, a small part of you has returned to the present and, in that moment, your laughter at what’s funny in the here and now has temporarily risen above your grief.

Shifting your focus — and your language — from “Never ever” to “Not today” or “Not now, but maybe tomorrow” is indicative of a subtle shift in your journey through grief. As this shift starts to take hold, your language around describing your feelings and what’s happened changes to reflect this.

In the depths of devastation, it’s easy to describe your situation as one that’s put you in a position where you, like Carrie, might “never feel happy or smile again” or “never find such a great job or friend again”. The permanency of such language is in and of itself limiting. A more present, focused — and arguably more accurate — description might be, “I feel so sad/alone/hurt/betrayed right now” or, “I can’t imagine smiling today.”

While this shift from sweeping statements to the present moment is subtle, it’s powerful in creating a new energy around your grief experience. This is a small change you can make consciously, and doing so helps lift some of the heavy energy of grief.

Grief is unique

Grief is entirely individual. Your response to the loss of a parent will be different from your reaction to that of a friend or even your spouse. Navigating redundancy or divorce is something you’ll respond to in your own way, based on your previous experiences. Comparing your path through grief to others adds unnecessary pressure and creates unrealistic expectations. Staying present to your individual experiences helps pave a more direct road back to a new kind of happy.

The ACGB concurs, noting on their grief and bereavement support page that “much of grieving is about expressing emotion. Some may be unfamiliar and unacceptable to self or others — eg, anger, guilt, remorse. Finding a safe place and an accepting person for support to work through all the effects of bereavement is important.

“The amount of support available from family and friends may be limited if they too are grieving. Misunderstandings can arise when people experience different responses to a shared loss. External supports may then become a vital factor in understanding and expressing your grief.”

Emotion and memory

Mistaking a return to happiness as being over or no longer remembering what you’ve lost is to set almost impossible standards for yourself. Memories are part of living. They’re unique to humans; unlike most other animals, we’re able to perceive past and future, rather than staying solely in the present.

Healing from grief can be observed through your changing responses to memories. Early on, in the intense period immediately following loss, memories of your loved one seem to be instantly accompanied by strong emotion, often aching sadness.

Rather than avoiding the memories because of the emotion that’s triggered, witness your level of feeling for what’s now gone. Your emotion is a testament to how much you loved or valued what’s been lost. It’s also a way of honouring what you’ve had the privilege of sharing or experiencing.

As time passes, memories continue to return, but with changing emotional responses. In time, memories of a lost loved one can even evoke positive rather than sad emotions. This doesn’t mean you love what’s gone any less but, deep within your being, there’s a slow growing acceptance of what’s happened. This doesn’t mean you necessarily like your loss; rather that you’re beginning to process and understand it.

Acceptance

Much of navigating grief draws on self-care and self-awareness. This begins with acceptance, rather than judgement, of what you’re feeling. Whether you are meant to feel what you do in response to your loss is irrelevant; the fact is, you feel it, therefore it’s part of your road through grief. Grief is a place of transition. Some stop there longer than others but ultimately it’s an experience to move through.

French author Marcel Proust wrote, “We are healed of suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” So before you rush to get happy again after loss, it may prove to be more healthy to allow yourself to feel the full, broad spectrum of your emotional response to loss.

Writing on pain, Khalil Gibran calls it “the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding … And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; and you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.”

In On Grief and Grieving, Kübler-Ross and Kessler note, “In grief we often have a deep well of different emotions occurring at the same time, which is what makes grief confusing.” It’s common to feel relief mixed in with the sadness, a sense of lightness blending with the heavy sense of loss. Different parts of your being are responding in different ways to the loss you’ve experienced and each taps into one facet of the overall experience.

Focusing

Described as a “practical guide to emotional self-healing”, focusing is a skill that “lets you tap into your body’s wisdom and make positive changes in your life”.

Focusing accepts that there is “some good reason for every feeling” and invites you to approach these feelings, even if they seem to initially be physical sensations, with “interested curiosity”. This allows you to explore the feeling or sensation, discovering what’s around or in it. A patient attitude and quiet, uninterrupted time are all you need to participate in a focusing experience.

You can use focusing for any situation but it may be especially useful to help you gain clarity around your feelings in the often surprising world of grief. Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD, writes In The Power of Focusing, “Overwhelming feelings are a signal that something very important wants to have our attention, wanting to be heard. Unfortunately, the very intensity of the feeling may interfere with our willingness to hear it. When we can start by saying hello and forming a positive relationship with the feeling, it becomes easier to bear and it is able to give its message.”

Focusing helps you attend to your inner emotional landscape through labelling and exploring your feelings. Clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical school, Christopher K Germer, PhD, in his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, discusses the importance of labelling emotions in creating inner calm. He writes, “Labelling emotions is a powerful way to manage them.”

Rather than avoid, suppress or attempt to ignore strong feelings, you’ll find it takes less energy to quietly acknowledge the emotion or inner sensations that arise through grieving. As you acknowledge the feelings or sensations (like tightness in the chest or heaviness in the tummy), you’ll notice they settle and calm and lose some of their intensity, leaving you feeling more at peace — a key quality of happiness.

A simple focusing process might follow these steps:

  • Bring awareness into the body, especially throat, chest, stomach, abdomen
  • What wants my awareness now? — exploring a “felt sense”
  • Acknowledge feeling or sensations that arise with a hello
  • Name or describe feelings or sensations
  • Engage in inner dialogue with feelings or sensations

Community

In The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher K Germer, PhD, notes: “Happy people feel connected to their environment and unhappy people feel separated from it.”

While dealing with death and loss is different from simply being unhappy, your journey back to happiness through grief will involve reconnecting — often in new ways, perhaps with new roles — to your community. Deep in the grief experience, interacting with others may be the furthest thing from your mind. You will however reach a point where external interaction becomes a necessity. Baby steps that help keep you in contact with others are necessary to reconnect with happiness.

 

Kelly Surtees is an internationally published writer devoted to expanding her wellbeing through personal growth. Her geographic home is in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.

Kelly Surtees

Kelly Surtees

With more than 14 years in private practice, Kelly Surtees is experienced, warm and insightful. She loves exploring astrology’s history as well as escaping into the ocean. Kelly’s passion for astrology is infectious, and her specialty areas include career and life direction, health and fertility, love, health and happiness. Kelly is an expat Aussie who lives in Canada most of the year.

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