After something awful happens, people will tell you to do things that make you feel better; read happy books, do things to keep your mind off of the tragedy, hang out with friends and so on. I’ve been doing all of that, and it has made me feel much, much better.
Which somehow makes me feel worse.
I feel guilty when I’m happy, now. I suffered from the same phenomenon after our daughter Grace passed away. I would find myself feeling a tickle of joy in my heart and suddenly a great weight would slam down on my chest. How dare I feel happy when such awful things have happened in the world? I should be drowning in sorrow! I should be tearing my hair and screaming and wailing, unable to get out of bed. And while I did have those moments, too, I thought they should be happening all the time. I should be punished for not feeling as awful as I should.
I talked to my therapist about this some. He has been trying to convince me that I am no less deserving of joy than anyone else in the world, and that perhaps particularly because I have spent so much time feeling bad that I should spend extra time seeking out ways to feel good. In fact, doing things I love and spending time with people I care about were some of the assignments he gave me for getting back to myself again.
And like a good girl, I did my homework. But afterwards there was a niggling ache in me that told me I was doing the wrong thing.
I think part of the problem is society. There is a behavior pattern that others expect us to have when we grieve and when we have experienced a loss. People expect others to grieve in patterns that resonate with them, even though each person who has experienced a loss will experience it in their own way. Some people bury their feelings, others sob uncontrollably. Some people are ready to move forward with their lives after a day, some after a year, and some feel as though their lives remain stalled for the rest of their lives. Why do we think everyone should behave the same?
And why do we judge and pressure those who work differently than we do?
I am aware, through careful introspection, that some of my fear and guilt about feeling better stems from the fact that I was judged harshly because of incidents that happened after my daughter passed. My husband and I had arranged for her to be cremated, then asked for time before we were ready to plan a memorial. My mother-in-law superseded our plans and had a memorial service with the family, burying my daughter in a cemetery with her own mother, and did not even notify us of the plans, let alone give us an option to attend. I’m not sure what the rest of the family thought of our non-attendance, but from things they have said to me recently I suspect they thought we were simply callous and unfeeling and chose not to attend. And I suspect that them throwing that into my face now, that judgement of me, is what is making me feel guilty now about spending any time doing anything that makes me happy.
The fact that they probably don’t know the truth about what happened – that I had no idea what was going on and was so devastated I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, which was why I couldn’t plan anything immediately – makes it easy for me to forgive them for the insults and horrible slurs they have thrown at me now. I haven’t tried to tell them the truth because their own perception is their reality; I don’t believe they would care what the truth was. They made their judgments a long time ago. So why can’t I forgive myself?
I hold myself to a much higher standard than I hold anyone else. And my internal monitor tells me also that I shouldn’t be having fun, shouldn’t be enjoying my friends, shouldn’t be laughing and creating art and travelling and living my life. It tells me I don’t deserve those things.
If it were a good friend going through this, I would tell them that they did deserve joy, and I’m trying to be kind to myself in that way. I’m trying to remind myself that it’s okay, that life goes on, that seeking joy doesn’t diminish tragedy, but celebrates the fact that I am still alive, still strong, and still moving forward.
I am trying.