There was a time in my life when joy wasn’t work. When something was fun, I enjoyed it. When something was funny, I laughed. If it was a down day, I went to sleep believing that the next day had plenty of potential to be wonderful. The littlest things made me smile: kids skipping down the sidewalk, flowers in bloom, hot chocolate on a snowy day. I had struggles and sad times, but I could still spontaneously experience joy without thinking about it. Joy was just naturally there, waiting to be felt.
I fundamentally changed after delivering and holding my stillborn son.
I felt the distinct shift in my ability to effortlessly feel joy. Our household had been a happy one that was full of love and laughter. Our three living daughters, ages 4 and two-year-old twins, were incredibly adorable and sweet. But for many months after we lost our son, I was unable to absorb or feel any joy whatsoever. Joy had always been waiting in the wings but now it wasn’t there at all. It seemed to have abandoned me. I was sad that I couldn’t experience those precious early years with my daughters joyously. Some days it made me angry.
Over time, I hoped joy would silently creep back into my body on its own.
I waited and watched and even searched for it sometimes, but it was elusive and difficult to find. I had a few moments here and there when I smiled or laughed, but it was forced. Then I felt guilt for having laughed when my son was dead. I felt like a terrible mother to him when I laughed. I felt like a terrible mother to my living daughters when I didn’t.
After several months, I made a choice to open the door I’d been guarding so carefully and I invited joy to come back in. I had to consciously make the decision to open that door. I did this mainly for my daughters, knowing deep down that I needed it too. But simply inviting joy to come back did not make it spontaneously appear.
The next step was to acknowledge that finding joy was going to be work and require effort. I was so tired, exhausted from my grief and from running after my little girls. The thought of putting more effort into anything was daunting.
I started small. When something was happening that I knew should make me smile, like my girls dancing on the coffee table in their Halloween costumes, I made a choice.
In my mind, I first identified it as a happy moment. Then I thought to myself: I can smile, I can laugh, and that’s okay.
This strategy worked sometimes. Sometimes it didn’t. Often, I would feel tremendous grief after these happy times because I wished my son was there to share it with us. It made the joyful moment smaller and the grief bigger, but I was willing to take the grief if it meant I could experience joy for a moment. At first, the joy would only last a few seconds then fade quickly away. But it was there. Even if it was tiny, it was there.
Three years later, I often need to consciously identify the joy first, open the door for it, and choose to feel it. It is still work, it still takes effort and I still get angry about that sometimes. But I’m dedicated to putting in the work that joy takes, most days.
Four Strategies For Finding Joy After Loss:
- When something happens that could be viewed as joyful, recite this mantra: This is a happy moment. I choose joy right now. It’s okay to smile, it’s okay to laugh.
- Keep a joy journal. Right down one joyful thing that happened each day, or make a list of 1-5 things that made you (or could have made you) smile. Specifically identifying joyful moments makes it easier to do so without as much effort in the future.
- Take one picture each day of something beautiful. Capture joyful moments, even if they are small: the sun shining on a leaf, a painting you like, food that tastes good. Having pictures of these small things will eventually add up to an entire album of moments that bring good feelings.
- Think back to the person you were before. What did she do that made her feel joy? Make a list of a few things and think about trying them out when you are ready. My list included: books, meeting my friends for drinks, and watching cheesy romantic comedies (with happy endings). Slowly, I allowed them back into my life and chose to find bits of joy in each of them.
The person I was before was pretty entitled to her joy, and when I think about it, she was outright spoiled. I think of her or see pictures of her and I miss her. But I do believe I can still smile and have fun. It just takes a little more work now.