My husband often asks ‘‘are you happy?’’ A question I find almost impossible to answer. I know, of course, he is referring to something simple, like – am I happy with my new job or the ice cream that I’m eating, but I simply cannot answer the question, at least not the way he would like me to.
Because I am happy that I am walking down the street on a beautiful summer day with my husband, eating my ice cream, but I am also extremely sad that I am walking down the street on a beautiful summer day with my husband, eating my ice cream, and I’m not holding the hand of my almost three-year-old daughter.
A question, which before the loss of Riley, would have had a simple yes or no answer, is now so complicated that I cannot even answer it.
I am often struck completely mute, because how do you explain to someone that you are happy and also sad, and not take away from what is genuinely a really nice moment?
Over the past two years, I feel like I have come to terms with the coexistence of happiness and sadness. Or at least I have accepted it. I think that the acceptance that sadness and joy can coexist, that just because you are enjoying a moment doesn’t diminish the pain you feel at the loss of your child was probably one of the important lessons I learned on this journey.
It was also one of the realisations that allowed me to move forward in life, but expressing and communicating these feelings to others is often a whole different thing.
In the world that I lived in before Riley’s passing, a happy situation required a happy reaction. Of course sometimes, you simply pretended to be happy, when in all honesty you really didn’t feel too happy at all, but that was just how society works right? Generally accepted happy situation requires a suitably happy reaction.
So I was happy when I should be happy and sad when I should be sad, and when someone asked me if I was happy, a simple answer of yes or no (mostly yes) would be my immediate response and the world was exactly what it should be. The rules, of course, changed on 25 September 2015, when we lost Riley, and my whole world imploded, taking all the rules that I had followed my whole life with it.
Interactions were no longer comfortable, questions no longer had simple answers, and the override function for unsuitable reactions had been turned off.
I have always categorised myself as a pretty sunny, positive person (in between some bouts of grumpiness reserved for my family). After Riley passed away, I not only struggled with the loss of my child, but with the happy person that had become so much a part of my identity. I remember, even amid the pain and shock, feeling somehow guilty that I couldn’t be happier around people, that I couldn’t react to their news and stories of their day-to-day lives with anything approaching joy.
I was in such deep pain that for the first time in my life I wasn’t even able to pretend that I was happy, and it severely impacted my ability to interact with those around me. I didn’t know who I was anymore, I couldn’t react the way society expected of me (and when I say this, most people who took the time to spend time with me during this period, and there were a lot, didn’t put any pressure on me to be one way or the other, so I guess it was my perception of how society expected me to be). I was completely lost.
Later it became worse, because life moves on, the people around you move on. They get married, they have children, they go on adventures, and you are somehow stuck, stuck in the sadness, not able to partake in the happiness around you, because it’s too painful. And you are isolated.
And then it got even harder because somehow my life started to move on.
I started to experience brief moments of happiness. I started to lift my drowning head above the water and life started to take me along with it, and eventually, I began to swim. And you have these moments that remind you that there is life outside of the pain. That sometimes you can hope for something good to happen, and it happens – and you feel happy.
Happy that you finished that race, happy that you had a nice lunch with your friends, happy that you had a lovely night away with your husband, happy that your new puppy makes you laugh, and that life doesn’t have to be terrible all the time – but then there comes the guilt.
Your brain starts to tell you what you learned and internalised for so many years, you cannot be happy and sad at the same time. You cannot grieve your child and enjoy yourself at the same time. Those moments that you were happy are a betrayal of your love for your child.
And those wonderful, simple, happy moments that somehow crept up on you are followed by the most excruciating sorrow and guilt. You feel like the world’s worst mother, because you allowed yourself to be happy in a world where your child is no longer physically present, and the rule is you cannot be happy and sad at the same time.
Although I had always said, from the moment that Riley passed away, that we would live the life that she would have wanted for us, it was not a simple task. You simply cannot live without joy, you can exist without it I guess, but you cannot really live. So in the year following Riley’s passing, I tried to do things that would make her proud, and I existed.
I existed and didn’t live because I refused to allow myself to participate in life in any kind of meaningful way because to be happy (even for a moment) was a betrayal.
It was later that the realisation came, that not to live life, not to try and find joy was the betrayal. The betrayal of the wonderful gift I had been given, the beautiful, joyful daughter who made me smile and laugh every day of her existence. Who allowed me to feel the most incredible joy of being a mother, who taught me to appreciate and find happiness in all the simple things in life.
The real betrayal would have been to throw away everything I had learned, everything she has taught me about life, and stop living. And so I accepted that I was always going to be sad and grieve the loss of my daughter, I can’t force that to go away – it is as much a part of me now, as the sunny side of me was and is again, but that the best way I could honour her was to find my happiness.
That being happy does not take away from how much I love my daughter, and does not mean that I cannot be sad at the same time.
I may have learned this lesson and accepted the coexistence of happiness and sadness, but it is not always easy in practice. We are now expecting our rainbow baby, and I am often asked “are you happy?” and again it is the most complicated question in the world.
If you are asking me if I am happy that we are expecting Riley’s sibling, then yes I am beyond happy, blessed, excited – I simply cannot wait to meet the little one.
But if you simply ask me ‘’are you happy?” the question becomes so much more complicated because I am both happy and sad.
I am happy that we are expecting our little miracle, and sad because our little three-year-old will not be physically (because I know she is there every step of the way) with us. Things just aren’t quite as straightforward as they used to be. But I’ve learned to accept them; they are part of the new me, a me that experiences the happiness in things (probably much more than I used to) and the sadness in things all at once.
And this is why that question “are you happy?” is impossible to answer.
Originally published on: https://runningforriley.wordpress.com
Photo by Soroush Karimi on Unsplash
About the Author: Karen is mom to two children, Riley and Elin. Riley passed away from SUDC (Sudden Unexplained Death in Children) nine days after her first birthday in 2015.