Going Through the Motions
You spend weeks, months, or years–there is no timeline for grief–barely able to wrench yourself out of the cocoon of your bed and mechanically manage the tasks of work, family, and society … And then one day, out of the blue, you see the blue. Of the sky.
It captures you and envelopes you in an awkward, unfamiliar feeling: happiness. You really see the sky, and you hear birds singing, and you suck air fully into your lungs, remembering what it felt like to feel good.
Pushing Happiness Away
Except that this time, it’s different. Never again will you notice the treasures of physical life without being taken aback by their stark beauty. Once wounded this deeply, you now have become unable to take anything for granted. But, something else might also occur.
Your first thought: “How lovely! Has this been this way all this time?”
And your second thought, “Oh, I’m so sorry! How dare I feel happy when you lie in ashes, or a grave, or missing, forever?”
I Wanted ME To Die
Several years have passed since my son Jacob died by suicide, and only recently have I begun again to feel real joy. Survivor’s guilt? Certainly.
All the time we searched for his body and hoped for the impossible–that he was alive somewhere and had only run away–I prayed that I be taken and he be spared.
Even after his body had been recovered and the coroners reported ruefully that the few fingerprints that remained were “a 100 percent match,” still, I tried to bargain with God/life/death.
“Just bring him back and take me,” I pled. “He has so much to give to the world, with his pure heart and deep intelligence. My life is over anyway …”
Except that it wasn’t. The thread that kept me tethered to this life was not purposeful work, material goods, or any sense of “God’s will” (which seemed like malarkey); rather, it was my amazing partner and our four children who remained, shell-shocked and forever wounded but present, alive, and in need of the tenderest care I could summon.
So I buckled down, stumbling around the kitchen to provide drab meals, working long nights after they’d gone to bed, crying in the shower to attempt not to weep in front of them. (That never worked.)
And I know now, that even though nothing ever will heal the void of Jacob, my other family members–their love and mine–are what helped me survive.
Jacob used to tease me that he thought I was on some type of drug, because I was so happy. Giddy, really. I was a middle-aged woman who’d been through a lot but had found my way through to a life grounded in my own values.
Long before I met my true love, I spent years alone, experiencing all the challenges of single parenthood but also making peace with my failures, forgiving life for turning out so cruelly, and learning to relish my solitude.
Jacob told the truth: I would marvel at the color of the sky, the taste of bitter coffee, the touch of a soft blanket. I told him that my religion was Joy and my practice was Gratitude. He laughed at me, and yet I think he loved me for seeing the world through such a lens.
When I first glimpsed the world in that way again, I shrank back. Yes, of course, I had acknowledged and even expressed thanks for the many blessings all the years since he died: food on the table, health, family, income, a roof overhead. But this day felt different. Joy was trying once again to push through to the surface.
Like trying to keep a beach ball underwater in a swimming pool, I struggled against it for days, perhaps months. If I felt happy, didn’t that seem disloyal to Jacob? Did that mean I was “over” his death? That I had replaced him with other people and things?
Can I Allow It?
Time plays tricks. Just after Jacob died I could not even imagine existing into the years and decades ahead. And then, later, I could not continue pushing away the goodness that barged back into my life.
My brain knows that Jacob would be the first person to wish happiness for me. He even said so in the note he left us. My heart (guilt) still gets the better of me at times, and I crumple into remorse for being able to breathe and see the blue sky and go on, yet there is it. My continuance is a fact, just as is his cessation. I can resist it but cannot change it.
And so, I look up.
Cover image courtesy of Cameron Venti for Unsplash.