A few months after our daughter died I spoke with a family friend who gave me some of the most profound advice of my life. “Go to the joy,” she said, “Go to the joy.” Four itty bitty little words that hold profound wisdom.
This friend, too, had experienced great loss. I know it is prejudicial, but I always feel a kinship with those, like me, who know deep, life altering loss. There is a wisdom gained, if not always acted upon, that comes with living through and with loss. There is a shorthand that exists within us that is not, I imagine, unlike combat veterans. We have seen things and experienced things that others have not and could not possibly understand. We are, in some ways, another form of the walking wounded.
Years ago, when I was working as a clinical social worker in a retirement community, I ran a bereavement support group for widows and widowers. One man who had lost his wife of over five decades talked a lot about the necessity of wearing a mask when he was around others. Trust me when I say that when you live in a genteel retirement community, you are almost always around others. Living in community can be exhausting, as the space to just be alone, really alone, is minimal.
This client would talk about putting on his mask every morning. It would be inconceivable for him to not wear his mask, just as it would be to not wear pants. His particular mask involved a slight closed mouth smile, brief, but limited, eye contact, and exchanging a few kind pleasantries about the day before moving the hell on and out of there. He found most exchanges with other people burdensome. They required great effort and they definitely required his mask.
Listening to this client talk about his mask always made me profoundly sad. Because he was a minister in his life’s work, he felt a responsibility to show a strong public face — to live the life his flock aspired to. For him, in his grief, that meant wearing the mask and not showing his vulnerability or his weakness or the true extent of his sadness.
I always felt for him, that he never felt comfortable enough to express how very sad he was to miss the love of his life, every minute of every day, his life’s partner in work and family. I believe that the mask he wore took a toll on him, too, just as his grief did.
In my own grief, I’ve done almost the exact opposite as my former client. I write about it, talk about it, share about it. It’s been five years now, and here I still am, on the eve of my daughter’s 9th birthday, still going on about it. I’ve been told, albeit by anonymous Internet strangers, to “get over it” and “find a new angle,” but here I still sit, writing about grief on my keyboard. My sadness and its presence in my day-to-day life is no different than having blue eyes or being 5’5″ — it is something that just is.
The things that guide me most in my grief are my friend’s words, “Go to the joy,” and my memories of Donna and her own relationship with joy. Kids get joy, you know? They are joy magnets. Think about a three or four or five year old and how so many of the things they do, they do with gusto. A bug! A sprinkler! A Happy Meal! Everything really is awesome! Except, you know, bed time.
I work to find the joy in every day life. Some days it is easy. Some days it is hard. Feeling joy, true, amazing joy, does not negate my grief, but it does give me a reprieve. Going to the joy — making a conscious choice to seek it out — has restored some balance in my life. And, full disclosure, I understand how it could be much easier to find the joy when you are raising kiddos in your 40s rather than living in a retirement community in your 80s. I get it, and I am grateful for it.
Perhaps, like my former client, I, too, have a mask. My mask just happens to be my boys. My giggling, growing, amazing, crazy, challenging, joyful boys. They help me find the joy every day. Well, almost every day.
And for that I am so very grateful.