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Can You Be Happy When You're Decimated?

Grievers are often in a no-win situation.

Key points

  • There are all kinds of emotions grievers are expected to feel and happiness isn't one of them.
  • Grievers can feel judged and guilty for moments of happiness.
  • Grievers might cling to their sadness as a reminder for others.

There’s a popular conception of what grief is supposed to look like, especially in the early days. We’re expected to be deeply sad and somber. Depending on the circumstances, people might also understand if we’re angry, confused, or even hurt.

But what happens if, somehow, amid your grief, you feel a flicker of happiness?

You might feel happy even while immersed in your darkest days for many reasons. Maybe someone told you a funny story about your person. Maybe you’re snuggling with your dog, eating your favorite food, or watching your team win the World Series. But then you “catch yourself” and are blown down by a tsunami of bad feelings that not only wash away any happiness you felt but leave you feeling even worse than you did before.


Grievers feel guilty for being happy.

We ask ourselves how we can be happy when our person will never get to feel anything again. How can we smile when our person is gone? We wonder whether we’re grieving “properly” or “hard enough.”

This line of thinking isn’t only backward. It’s actually risky. If you feel guilty for moments of happiness, ask yourself whether your person would want you to close yourself off from the possibility of feeling joyful. Maybe they’d want you to try to experience twice the joy since they can’t feel any at all anymore. That may seem ludicrous, but no more so than the idea that they wouldn’t want you ever to be happy again.

Feeling guilty for feeling happy is risky because you’re shutting out the possibility of integrating your loss into your life in a way that lets you move forward.

Grievers feel that if they’re happy, other people might forget their person.

We tell ourselves that our sorrow reminds people of our loss and by extension, makes them remember our person. But wouldn’t it be better if people remembered our person because they cared about her, not because they’re witnesses to our grief? There are myriad ways to carry on your person’s legacy; your around-the-clock sadness doesn’t have to be one of them.

Grievers feel judged for being happy.

What will other people think? we wonder. Ask any mourner, and they’ll tell you there was a time or three when they felt “caught” laughing or smiling in the days immediately after their person’s death.

Picture this: You and your friend are cracking up about a funny story she’s telling you. Someone you haven’t seen since the funeral enters the room and walks over to you, wearing an appropriately sorrowful expression. You immediately change your appearance to match hers. You might even feel you need to explain why you were laughing.

But grievers are also expected to “get over it” within a certain time period.

That’s why it’s a no-win situation. You’re not supposed to be too happy too early on in the grieving process, but you’re also not supposed to be stuck in your sadness as the months turn to years. The only way around this is to know that there’s actually no “supposed to” in grieving. There are no “shoulds” or “ought to’s” or timelines to follow. Despite common perception, there aren’t even stages that progress from one to the other. Grief is more like a big twisted ball of yarn where all the phases and feelings are tangled together.

It’s okay to feel what you feel when you feel it. And the truth is, you’re likely to feel every emotion under the sun early on and as you move forward. Grief is a heavy and painful place to be, but don’t feel bad if you find joy and beauty there, too.

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