by Maria Sirois
Happiness after loss looks like a bone-bare tree in winter. Empty of growth, steady yet silent. We are compelled by the bareness of the thing, the rawness, and each branch points seemingly randomly, meaninglessly… as if any one of the limbs taken or climbed would bring us to the exact same place—an endpoint facing relentless sky.
At the beginning of our journey, happiness is hidden. Yet it is so important to suspect that as potential it remains present. We may be saying and thinking, “I will never recover from this,” yet still we find ourselves breathing, still we find ourselves huddled by fire as if to warm our own cold limbs, still, yet, we seek the tiniest signs of life—a hummingbird—a butterfly—a rising star. We’re drawn to notice a promise of what yet might be. A woman who lost her youngest daughter at the age of six, a girl born with a seizure disorder so fierce the doctors suspected she would not live to see one year, said to me, “I know this will be bad for a really long time, until it’s a little less bad, and then a little less bad. Until I know that I am in a better place I have to believe that that is how it will go.”
Just as we cannot ask the dogwood to live in full bloom at all times, nor ignore its cyclical nature of life, death, life, so too we cannot ask of ourselves happiness immediately after loss. That would be aberration. We can sense, or hope for, the experience of pain lightening little by little. We can ask this: “Let me notice that which is good in the world to sustain me.” This is the other form of heaven within hell… the capacity to see the good in the world and hold onto it.
When Australian Olympic skiing athlete Janine Shepherd found herself paralyzed, strapped to a bed in a hospital spinal injury ward that would be her home for months, she recalled a moment unlike any other. She had been struck by a speeding truck on her last pre-Olympic training ride. The accident caused her spine to fragment. Lying tied to the bed, not knowing if she would ever walk again, depression ensued. She began to give up and marveled that others in the room— paraplegics and quadriplegics—had found a will to survive. She could only address the four others in the room by speaking, and they could barely see each other through mirrors positioned above their beds. She felt horribly alone.
One night a nurse brought straws. She had each of them hold on to a straw while she carefully linked each straw to another and then another, until the straws traversed the five beds in a circle of connection. “There,” she said. “Now we are all linked together.” That physical connection became a true lifeline for Janine; she chose to live.
Savoring this moment of joining through the months of physical therapy and adjustment to a full body cast, and then braces, and then eventually crutches, is an example of Janine holding onto that which is good. It is so easy sometimes, especially when we are in pain, to see only the pain, only the suffering, to notice, as Rilke reminds us, the stone that is in our face. And yet, the resilient among us, the happiest among us, find a way to see that which is beneficent or light-filled or joyous. This is a natural impulse, hardwired and universal, that we only need remember to nurture. Witnessing my nieces’ and nephews’ friends climb the stairs to comfort each other the day of my brother’s death was a gift; remembering it, appreciating it for what it meant about our capacity to be humane, was an act of hope, a deliberate choice to find heaven in hell. Here is where a seed of happiness begins to germinate, in the awareness of that which sustains us.
And, as we learn to savor the good, we find that we begin to see the world through the lens of positivity. We notice that no matter how dark the day, good exists. We remember that our strains, our losses, our fears are real, and goodness is also real. Generosity abounds. Kindness exists on street corners and in restaurant bathrooms and train station waiting rooms. We take in evidence of smiles, caresses, and laughter, and, in a gentle, unseen manner, we begin aligning our brain toward becoming happier. Not in such a way that we deny the hell that surrounds us … but in such a way that we begin to infuse that hell with what is also always real: the good in this life; the good within us.
This post is excerpted from A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (And Other Dark, Difficult Times), forthcoming in March 2016.
Dr. Maria Sirois, PsyD, is the Vice President of Curriculum at Wholebeing Institute and an inspirational speaker, seminar leader, and author who has worked at the intersections of wellness, psychology, and spirituality for nearly 20 years. As a wellness guide, Maria has been invited to keynote throughout the country at conferences for wellness centers, hospitals, hospices, philanthropy, business, academic and corporate institutions, as well as for the general public. She has been called both a “true teacher” and “an orator of great power and beauty.” Her book, “Every Day Counts: Lessons in Love, Faith, and Resilience from Children Facing Illness, was published in 2006.”