Do joy and grief really co-exist?
Q & A | What human experience & science say | June 8, 2023
After fielding many questions about grief, living with loss, finding joy, and the life-healing power of mindfulness & the natural world, I’m now picking one question to explore periodically with this e-community. Let me know if it’s helpful ;-)
This piece started as two, an article and a journal share, which seem to go together. So, grab a cup of tea or coffee for a longer read, and I hope you find value here.
“I’m past the 8-month mark since my beautiful partner died, and feel like I’m just going through the motions every day. I don’t see how I can ever be happy again. I keep wondering how long I have to stay in grief before I feel anything resembling joy again.
Your book and talks make it sound like joy is possible even while grieving.
Is it true that joy and grief really co-exist?”
The simple answer is, yes. Joy is not a destination, it’s a dimension.
You don’t have to go through grief to get to joy. It’s ever-present, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.
The fact that this answer is simple doesn’t mean feeling joy when you’re hurting is easy or effortless. It takes a combination of attention and intention to create space for joy to emerge, to invite it into the moment.
That said, let’s first define what we mean by joy.
That word means different things to different people, and I’m not suggesting you’re going want to throw parties every day and dance on the rooftop when you’re still feeling dazed and overwhelmed by the death of someone you love.
What is Joy?
Joy is an inside job. It grows out of feeling connected to your own life. There’s an active quality to it, requiring cultivation or nurturing.
Joy is a sense of belonging to this world and this moment, to this place in time and space that is your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual life. It encompasses personal peace and well-being.
Joy is intuitively knowing you are meant to be here, that you matter.
I know, in the aftermath of the loss of a beloved someone, it can feel like nothing matters any more.
Who you are, your sense of identity, is connected to your relationships, so when an integral relationship is severed by death, you really do lose a part of yourself as well as the one you still very much love.
But. You are still here. Your life still has work to do. Your part and value in the universal scheme of things is tethered to others, yes, but it is also distinct, one-of-a-kind, and shines on its own.
There’s only one you. That’s not fluff, it’s fact.
While we human beings are 99.9% genetically identical, that remaining 0.1% represents an incredible range of diversity and individuality, added to a matrix of life experiences specific to each one of us.
You are also your own personal planet, in a sense, with your unique microbiome (the bacteria, archaea, fungi, protozoa, and other tiny organisms) that inhabit you. In fact, you are home to more of these hidden residents than you have cells. No one else has your microbiome, which shapes, and is shaped by, you.
Funny now, but once when I was in a deep, grief-y place and dark voices were whispering in the corners of my mind about whether I wanted to keep going, I thought of this fact of being a microbial planet. I looked down at my belly, smiled, and thought, Okay, at least you guys need me, so I guess the planet needs to keep spinning.
Joy, so much more than bacteria, is an essential component of YOU.
Beyond being an experience for you (which is awesome), joy is also an experience that happens through you and touches others.
While you can’t be bursting with joy 24/7/365, especially while grieving, you are meant to know joy and to have it be a component of each day, which together, is your life.
How is joy different from being happy?
Happy and joy are related. We want both, but they’re different.
Happiness is passive, triggered by something outside of us, an external experience. That’s why we tend to say something “made” us happy. Riding on a rollercoaster or picnicking at the beach might make you happy, and the memory of that experience might make you happy. Great!
Feeling happy is wonderful. Enjoy it. Happy moments may, or may not, be a door back into your inner joy, though they allow you to step out of grief’s grey fog and feel a little warm, soothing light for awhile.
When you’re grieving, allowing things, people, and events to make you happy—without guilt or regret—is a healthy distraction from longing and sorrow. It’s especially critical during the raw, shattering grief that can feel unrelenting in the early days, weeks, and months after death has visited.
Here’s the thing, though, feeling happy is fleeting until the next thing that “makes” you happy.
Happy, when grieving, is like crawling out of a raging river to sit on a stone and catch your breath, stuck but safe, as the water gushes all around you. Joy is a sturdy, nimble kayak that lets you ride the river through the rapids and the placid stretches, navigating it all, discovering new landscapes and eddies along the way.
You might not always find a good rock, but you can always bring a kayak.
We’re meant—and, minus certain disease states, physically wired—to have both happiness and joy.
It’s not just a feel-good thing to experience happiness and joy in the midst of loss and grief, it’s actually part of how you heal your life.
Like other traumatic experiences, we carry our losses and hold our grief not only in our minds and emotions, but also within our animal body, that is, physically.
We are not just parts, we’re whole beings in which thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and spiritual orientations constantly interact with each other to keep us going from breath to breath, moment to moment.
If you stay too long in pain and despair without allowing happy moments and tapping into your store of inner joy regularly, you can actually change your neurochemistry and biology in non-life-supporting ways.
Sorrow and sadness, fatigue and overwhelm—they can become your new normal, your body’s operating system, making it even harder to find your way back into a life of meaning and well-being.
What Nightbirde says
During the pandemic, shortly after my book, Grieving Us, was published, I found myself frequently, albeit virtually, talking with people about how joy and grief really can co-exist, that it’s not a pollyanna idea.
Then a living example came into my life in an unlikely way. Perhaps into yours, too.
I don’t watch much telly, but I love programs where ordinary people, often with humble lives and backgrounds, turn out to have extraordinary talents. On June 8, 2021, exactly two years ago today, a slender young woman with pixie-short hair, delicate face, and a sweet smile stepped up to the microphone on America’s Got Talent.
She called herself Nightbirde and was 30 years old. The program’s judges, as they do with all contestants, asked her about herself. No, she hadn’t worked in a while because she was dealing with cancer. (Turns out she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2020, the darkest time of the pandemic, with a 2% chance of survival and likely no more than 6 months to live, and then her marriage ended.)
The judges, clearly emotional though assuming a miracle, asked if she was okay. Nightbirde smiled, “Yes, I’m okay.” Pressed further, she acknowledged she still had “some cancer” in her lungs, liver, and spine. There was a stunned silence.
Then she sang her original song, “It’s Okay.” Afterwards Judge Simon Cowell, who can be harsh and cranky, was moved. He commented on the tender authenticity of her voice and performance, and the way she’d casually shared what she’d been going through.
Nightbirde, ever-smiling, simply said, “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.”
The emotion gave way to quiet then applause in that theater, and it was palpable in my living room. I was crying, and my husband dealing with his own end-of-life realities was crying. It was not out of pity or sorrow, but because we knew she was right and showing the rest of us the way forward.
There was also a line in her song that felt so true then and now. I want to offer it to you.
“It’s okay if you’re lost, we’re all a little lost, and it’s alright, oh, it’s alright to be lost sometimes.”
If you missed hearing Nightbirde and “It’s Okay,” you can watch her performance here:
A little more than 8 months after the episode aired, Nightbirde, Jane Marczweski, died. But, as is always the case of a life meaningfully lived, her story didn’t end.
This year’s America’s Got Talent program just started airing. On the first episode, the Mzansi Youth Choir from Soweto, South Africa, took the stage.
Full of energy, dance, powerful solos and graceful harmonies, they sang, “It’s Okay.” As the words lifted out of those young faces and dancing bodies, the judges realized they were singing Nightbirde’s song. It was a full-circle kind of magic.
Later, members of the choir talked about how inspired they were when they watched Nightbirde sing that song, and how as the choir began to sing it, they found it a “pillar of strength for us as a choir through difficult times.”
You can watch the Mzansi Youth Choir’s performance here:
Why share all of this?
This story is a lovely bit of proof. Beyond my own personal experiences, that of many clients, and what science-based studies show, this story exemplifies that joy and happiness really do co-exist in the midst of grief, trauma, loss, and unimaginable hardship.
This story is also proof that each of us, as I keep sharing, brings into to this world a gift that only we can give.
No, you don’t have to go on America’s Got Talent. The program simply magnifies what can be hard to see in your own life, especially if you think your life isn’t all that exceptional.
What is it you might not be seeing?
That you are the gift, and living into your one-and-only, heartbroken-and-still-beautiful life matters. Nighbirde had it right, and the Soweto children remind us.
You don’t have to be bravely living with cancer or be a South African child fearlessly following a big dream, you just need to want to sing, and then, sing.
I mean that mostly metaphorically, as most of us don’t see ourselves as singers (I’m pretty sure my voice could frighten small children and spook the local wildlife ;-). Still, singing and humming and laughing all initiate a biochemical chain reaction that leans us toward well-being and helps us unlock joy. Try it, you’ll like it.
Your ‘song,’ may not be a song at all. It could be as simple as being a listening, caring presence when someone else is struggling. Often you don’t ever really know what your gift is.
You just live your life with love as a compass and trust that you’re being and doing exactly what you’re meant to be being and doing.
Just know this: Like Nightbirde your life echoes far beyond this moment.
We’re all like teachers who touch this year’s crop of kids and never know what or who those wiggly little beings will become. You just try to plant your best seeds in others, and that is a big part of what roots you in joy.
A personal note about joy in grief for me today
Today it’s been 20 years since my mother died. Like some of my clients who are coming up on the one- or two-year mark of the death of their beloved other, today I’m living in a time warp.
Have you lived in a time warp?
That’s when you’re living in today, while also reliving the memory of the same day a year, or 20 years, ago when your life was so different and included a person or a sweet animal whom you would soon lose.
It’s the mind today knowing what your mind then could not have known.
So today, it feels as if I have one foot in the here and now. My torti cat is curled on the daybed and we’re looking out at a grey, coastal day. There’s the sound of the waterfall spilling into my pond, a kind of braided music as the water twists and burbles over rocks. Every so often, the big, gawky Wild band-tailed pigeons land in the recirculating stream, heads bobbing, and start who-who-ing their birdy operas.
The other foot is in a hospital room long ago. My father, my sister, my brother and his wife, my 8-year-old niece, and I are gathered around my mother as her lungs, collapsed from cancer, give up. The room feels full of my mother for a long time after she’s gone, and I can’t leave. A nun comes into the room, looks at all of us, and I expect her to go to my father, so utterly shattered. Instead, she comes to me, telling me I did a good job supporting my family and my mother through her transition. That’s the word she used, transition. And I know, I unequivocally know, my mother sent her to me with that message I needed to hear.
In the now, there’s an opening in the high-up fog clouds. Stripes of light fall through redwoods, across the already bloomed-out rhododendron, illuminating the ferns below and bright green leaves of what will be daisies in a few weeks.
Suddenly, I’m in 2003 again, walking out of the hospital into a beautiful Pennsylvania day. Bright sun, people in the distance laughing, looking very summer-cheery. At first, it feels so wrong to be so beautiful, the world going on it’s merry way without my mother in it.
Then my mind says, No, the world is meant to go on. We’re meant to go on.
Back in the now, I look at one of the tabs on my computer. It’s what I sent my sister this morning who’s still living an up and down life without her husband, and today, 3,000 miles away, is grieving my mother, too. She started the day by texting a meme to me:
I hadn’t yet been thinking about Nightbirde and the Mzansi Youth Choir and the ways you can sing “It’s Okay.” I was just feeling the sadness of being motherless, and having my sister and little brother so far away, and how my husband sleeping in another room and far past his hospice diagnosis will eventually join my mother.
Even more, the last few days I’ve been thinking about how much I miss dancing with my husband. We used to dance all the time early in our marriage, and now, well, his body doesn’t allow for such things very well.
So, when I saw my sister’s meme, the song that popped into my head was, “I Will Survive,” a serious dance track.
Still early morning, I put in some earbuds, kicked off the animal slippers, and opened a YouTube video. I danced and danced, the rhythm and words piped directly into my ears, my brain energized. The cats sat up and watched. The hardwood floor had a little give and take with each step, as if saying, I’ll be your dance partner.
It was: So. Much. Fun.
Then I remembered how I use to dance by myself in my apartment long before I was part of a couple. That aha was so freeing.
The impromptu dancing made me not only happy, but there was that inner joy, because my body told me: I can still dance. (Okay, might not look pretty, but you get the idea).
There’s such power in focusing on what I can do, what’s possible, rather than on what’s done, past, or lost. Do you practice that power?
Then I sent the video link to my sister, and challenged her to do the same (she used to be an amazing dancer).
My mother loved dancing. Suddenly I see her, being fully Her Self. I’m a kid and she’s dancing with me, the static-y radio in our kitchen turned up. Her hair pulled into a wispy-messy ponytail, she’s teaching me how dancing starts in the hips then shoulders, not the feet. “They follow,” she shouts, spinning about on that old linoleum. She really got into The Rolling Stones and would have approved of Gloria Gaynor today (there was a lot my mother survived).
So much I’d forgotten about my own history, until I chose to invite joy into my glum, bedraggled morning. Action matters.
Inner joy starts with the intention toward, and belief in, something better for you, that’s already within you.
Here’s Gloria Gaynor for you. I encourage you to dance, right now. Go ahead. No one’s looking, and even if they are, so what?
If you can’t physically dance, then tap a toe, clap, shift your shoulders or sway your hips, close your eyes and imagine dancing, or fling your hands all about overhead as if tethered birds remembering what it’s like to fly.
P.S. What made me long for dancing out of the blue? This sweet clip that came up randomly during an Internet search—the surprise of Nellia and Deitmar, an Austrian couple, who’ve been swinging and jiving for 40+ years.
Message from the universe: Boogie-woogie as long as you can and as long as it brings you joy . . . even if eventually you are your own dance partner.
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