Americans grow up hearing about their fundamental right to the “pursuit of happiness.” The English philosopher, John Locke, originated the phrase that Thomas Jefferson famously borrowed in the Declaration of Independence. You may wonder, how is this relevant to grief?
There is a connection because on one hand our culture values happiness as a fundamental right. We want to be happy and we want others to be happy as well. If they are not, we often think it’s our job to probe, push and even pester them to make different choices so they will be happy. On the other hand, for a grieving person, feeling happy can seem foreign and even unwelcome.
Some believe that to feel anything positive betrays the magnitude of their loss. But is that true? Is denying expression of the full range of human emotions necessary to show respect for the deceased? What if you could find a way to both honor your person and eventually re-engage with life yourself? Courage and perseverance will be needed but I believe such a way exists. This is what I have personally learned in the last decade plus since becoming a widow
In the first stages of bereavement it seemed shocking to acknowledge that I might, at some point, feel anything other than the crushing sorrow. Yet, as time passed, the day came when a smile or maybe it was even a laugh managed to escape without thought. This first, small bit of happiness produced guilt and even some shame, because to show any signs of being happy felt like disloyalty to my husband. Such a guilt reaction was based on the all-or-nothing notion that I could either be 1) grieving or 2) happy, but not both.
Generally speaking, however, life and emotions are not binary. We actually can and do carry grief while still experiencing other emotions that are positive. We do not lose our underlying sadness merely because we allow ourselves to smile, laugh or enjoy certain activities. Knowing this enables us to give ourselves permission to find and enjoy a new life without dishonoring the deceased.
When we love someone who has died, we will always carry them in our hearts. Grief over their death will never depart from us, though in time it generally moves to the back row, calling attention to itself periodically rather than constantly. If we live in a way that keeps grief the main attraction, cutting out all parts that make life worth living, then the death of one was actually the death of two.
Grief can be viewed like a cast on a broken bone. Initially it provides the proper structure for deep healing. But at a certain point, the full cast becomes detrimental, causing atrophy of tissue and muscle. In the same way, grief that is tightly held out of a sense of duty can slowly erode vitality. Like muscle underneath the cast, positive emotions can also atrophy from lack of use till eventually all that’s left is a grey shell of a person.
It is possible to move forward, find a way to live fully and still honor the memory of your loved one. One way to do this is to shift your perspective away from yourself and toward remembering those character traits you admired in him or her. Using these traits as a reference point, consider ways to act on them yourself. For example, if your loved one enjoyed music, you might go to a concert in his honor. If she liked history, you could tour an historical sight. If he was athletic, go on a hike.
I did this myself. My husband had always been described as someone who “lived fully”. He knew how to scoop out and consume life’s marrow by adventures like hang gliding, bobsledding or open water swimming events in frigid temperatures. I’d be on the sidelines cheering him on while taking photos. After his tragic death from cancer at 47, I decided to try to be more like him, to get off the bench and into the game. At first, I only had the idea to get a motorcycle license so I could ride the scooter he left behind. After I passed the state test, however, I realized that it was the first time I truly felt happy in the two years since we’d received his terminal diagnosis.
I decided then and there that each year moving forward I would do one out-of-my-comfort-zone, adventurous or challenging activity in his memory. One that would make him smile. And be proud. I’ve now done, and survived the difficulty or the embarrassment of 14 of them.
These challenges have tested me in every possible way – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And I have loved doing them. I have become happy again while I was honoring him. I met people who became friends, learned new skills, walked away with unexpected life lessons, and heard others’ similar, compelling stories. Along the way I realized the value of purposeful, positive action in coping with grief. The idea that I was honoring my husband through these challenges motivated me to continue doing them.
I did big things once a year, but small actions can serve the same end. A friend gives Drew Hugs in honor of her man. When she encounters someone in need of encouragement, she offers a hug. If her offer is accepted, she hugs, runs her knuckles gently up and down their spine and says that it’s what Drew used to do. His signature hug.
These ‘legacy actions’ convey to the world that your person had at least one amazing quality that deserves to be recognized and remembered. Share that quality. Make the world a better place. Do it for them. Do it as an example to your family. Do it for yourself. Do it out of love and honor.
At first, stepping out and choosing to embrace life again after losing a spouse or someone equally dear feels inappropriate, like wearing clothes that aren’t your style. Start small, push through the initial discomfort by dedicating your action to the deceased and the memory of his or her amazing or unique qualities.
As you engage in your chosen activity, keep in mind that you are doing it for the deceased person you love. You could even say to yourself “I am doing this because I love ______,” making it about your loved one and transforming the experience to one of intentional honoring and remembrance.
An other-oriented perspective helps motivate you if you have any difficulty overcoming your initial reluctance to actually do what you plan to do. Remember, the idea is to intentionally take action that reflects a characteristic you liked or admired in your loved one. By doing this you can embrace life again but with a renewed purpose and sense of hope because you are now serving and honoring your loved one’s memory rather than doing something merely for its own sake.
There is a tension between respecting the dead and living life, but our hearts have the capacity to balance both. Understanding and acknowledging this is the beginning. Once done, it’s possible to discover a way to purposefully remember the lost one and honor his or her valuable qualities through living them out.
Somewhere in the continuum between offering hugs as needed and once a year adventurous challenges, there is space for each grieving person to find a way to honor his or her own loved one.
Purposeful remembering is one way to provide an outlet for both love and grief. It honors the memory as well as the legacy of one whose life forever changed ours. What a beautiful way to show them honor by embodying and carrying forward something they taught us.