When my sister sat across from me on our couch and told me that she was pregnant with her third child, just a few months after I had lost my first daughter, tears ran down both of our cheeks. I felt both sadness and joy.
I wanted to assure her that I was so happy for this new life growing inside of her, while at the same time I couldn’t hold back the fresh wave of grief washing over me as I longed to know a healthy baby was growing inside of me. She knew and she told me whatever I was experiencing was okay, that I didn’t even have to be happy and she was experiencing the tension of these emotions too. What freedom she gave me that day to embrace the joy and the pain that were a part of my new reality of grief.
These moments with my sister were some of the first moments after I lost my first daughter were I felt another’s joy mixed with my own pain. It was the feeling of this joy at new life, a new nephew and the pain of my own loss. It was uncomfortable and unsettling.
Can’t I just have one emotion without the other?
It could be easy in those moments for the one experiencing joy to think or even say (but please don’t) “Can’t you just be happy for me?” Thankfully, those were not words that my sister ever said or even thought, instead she sat with me in the pain and the joy that co-existed, allowed me to celebrate with her when I could and cried with me when I couldn’t. Perhaps those words have been said to you as you have wrestled with the tension of your own pain and ache or perhaps you have felt, “Why can’t I just be happy for them?” instead of the intense seemingly contradictory emotions of joy and pain rising. Or perhaps like me, you just wish those emotions didn’t seem to so constantly collide together now.
Sitting in the emotions of joy and pain is difficult.
In our western culture it’s difficult for us to sit in the emotions of pain and joy for both the one grieving and the one watching another grieve. We like things to be more streamlined, more comfortable, more understandable. Today I feel happy. Today I feel sad. But for the one who grieves, those emotions are back and forth and often happening in the same moments, or even the same breaths. I can make much more sense of my emotions when they are not such a jumbled mess. But grief is jumbled and messy.
Before I lost a child, I didn’t understand the collision of such intense emotions, I truthfully had never experienced them so frightengly close together and at the same time. Most of my life had been fairly easy. At a wedding, or a bridal shower, at a baby shower or finding out someone was pregnant I felt mostly joy. Even when I was single and longed to be married, finding out someone else was getting married didn’t evoke the same kind of intense emotions that surfaced when I would find out someone was having a baby after losing mine.
Joy and sorrow go together.
Of course, I didn’t wish loss on anyone, I didn’t wish that someone would have to endure the pain of knowing their child would die, I just wished I hadn’t lost my child. Today, several years later, it is more the other milestones I watch my friend’s children experience that are reminders –sometimes glaringly, other times more subtle–of the milestones I’m missing. They are the emotions that arise in the ones who have walked through suffering and they are the emotions of those who recognize that we live in a world where joy and sorrow are constantly colliding.
For me, as one who follows Christ, there is no one who is a greater picture of this astounding collision of joy and pain than Jesus. He is often called the man of sorrows, He bore the weight of the pain of this world (imagine, your sorrow times even more than a trillion), and looked to the joy set before Him, the redemption of all things. If you read the Bible you can see all throughout that there is a constant collision of joy and sorrow. They go together and you cannot know one with out the other. Seeing these truths afresh has brought a strange peace to my soul to know that I am not alone in these intertwined emotions.
Things are not just joy and things are not just pain.
As time has gone on, my joy has become sweeter, not apart from the pain but because of it. I hear of new life forming and my heart twinges with ache and yet joy at the preciousness, the value, the gift of life.
A few months ago, as I was spending time with my best friend, Julie and her two daughters, the girls put on music from La La Land. I took them by the hands and we twirled and danced and my heart was filled with joy. And there it was again, in an instant, tears of sadness washed over me as I imagined what it would be like to dance and twirl with my two girls who would be around the same age as hers.
I grieved for my daughters in that moment, longing for the day that I would get to experience dancing with them while I was thankful for these precious moments with my best friends little girls who I love so much too.
As I have more readily accepted the reality that these two emotions will constantly collide, I have been more fully able to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. I have grown in allowing those strange and often irreconcilable emotions exist together.
I’m realizing that my feelings of sadness and pain do not mean I’m not happy for those experiencing joy, and my joyful moments do not mean I’m not still sad and missing the ones I have loved and lost.It has not been easy, but it has and continues to be a (mostly) sweet journey of accepting that things are not just joy and things are not just pain and one does not cancel out the other.
“In acceptance lieth peace”
A wise woman named Elisabeth Elliot once said “in acceptance lieth peace”. Over time as I have begun to learn to accept and embrace the ever intertwining emotions of joy and pain greater peace has followed. And that peace has come not when my emotions lifted but in the midst of them. I do not often (or ever) like that my reality includes such loss but I am reminded that I am not the only one to walk such a journey of pain. And I am certainly not the first to begin to learn how to have joy in the midst of pain.
I think of all of the men and women who have gone before me, of the millions of suffering men and women across our world today who live in this constant tension and I am reminded that Jesus, over 2000 years ago bore the weight of all this pain for the joy set before Him, that His joy could be our joy too.
Lindsey Dennis is the proud mother to 4 precious children, 2 who passed away shortly after birth and two in her arms today. She is married to the man of her dreams, Kevin and loves to spend her time offering the hope that is being written on her heart in the midst of her grief to others. She is the author of Buried Dreams: From Devastating Loss to Unimaginable Hope that tells the story of the loss of her first two daughters and the hope that she discovered in the midst of deep grief.