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Can Grief Allow Us to Be Joyful and Happy Again?

Contributing Author: Joyce Dudley, District Attorney, Santa Barbara County (CA)

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Photo: Joyce & Husband (John)

hat is grief? Can you experience it without someone you love dying? Can you get over it? Learn from it?

Most importantly, after feeling paralyzed by grief, can you ever experience sincere joy and happiness again?

I will answer that last question first — my answer is a resounding yes!

Grief is that constricting and overwhelming pain in your heart and gut; it is the hot stream that forms behind your eyes and leads to uncontrollable tears.

It’s a grip so tight on your throat, it affects your ability to breath…but you don’t care. It’s a pain so all-encompassing that when you are feeling it, you believe you will never feel anything else again…and you don’t care.

In the last two years, I have experienced grief so often it has become an expected guest.

My grief began decades ago when my father was diagnosed with, and soon died from, pancreatic cancer. My grief was exasperated when my husband John, got the same diagnosis and also passed away.

My father was my savior, my anchor and my best friend. John was my inspiring and supportive soulmate; he made everything possible.

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Photo: Joyce’s Mother & Father

The grief I feel now is the void created when they left me. My husband died almost two years ago and I still cry, almost daily, because I miss him so much.

At first my grief took the form of immobilizing pain. Now it is, in some ways, a comforting pain. Comforting because I now fully appreciate that I had the fortune and the ability, to love and be loved by an extraordinary man for 34 years.

As German poet Ludwig Jacobowski wrote in 1899, “Do not cry because they are past! Smile, because they once were!”

And as my close friend and revered psychiatrist Paul Sargent once told me, “Happiness and grief are not mutually exclusive. It’s not all or nothing. You can cry every day and still be a happy person…and it is not fake. In fact, the happiness is all the more authentic because of the grief you carry.”

Right now, as we all experience COVID, we are living with some form of grief: loss of loved ones, loss of health, jobs, education, travel, entertainment, hugs, camaraderie, or adventure. Many of us are suffering in silence. All of us are mourning over some profound losses.

As my extraordinary Hospice grief counselor, Marilyn Goldman, said, “Grief and loss can extend beyond our attachments to people, and can include the loss of anything that gives our life meaning.”

As to my question — Can you get over grief? — my answer to that is no, at least I hope not. Getting over something means you step over it and move on.

I believe grief has too many powerful lessons to offer for us to merely step over it and move on. I believe you need to go through it, preferably with a big backpack so you can pick up its precious gems and take them with you. I believe these gems are critical life lessons.

One of the gems I have picked up from grief and have taken with me is the profound importance of love, communication, health, hard work, art, laughs, and friendships.

Now on to my last question — can you experience sincere happiness again?

My answer to that is yes, because in some ways I experience more moments of joy in my life now than I did before.

My explanation is that I take less for granted. Now I experience more joy in simple things such as a stranger’s smile, moving through nature, a meal, a meaningful conversation, engaging in a random act of kindness, and trying something new.

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Photo credit: Neonbrand/Unsplash

As Marilyn Goldman taught me, “Death awareness brings life awareness.”

Through grief I have also learned that you can actively search and find joy, or you can passively experience nothing but sadness.

As Dr. Sargent wrote me after reading this piece, “If you look for gems along the path, you will find them…but you have to look! If all you expect to see are boulders, rocks, barriers, that is all you will see.”

My father and husband can no longer appreciate the joy that this life can bring, but I still can.

When I sent Marilyn Goldman an early draft of this piece, she wrote back, “I see a softening that makes me think of John. It would give him peace to know that you are healing, growing, expanding and embracing the precious life that is still yours to live.”

Her words comforted me.

I now firmly believe that how you decide to live while experiencing grief is a matter of choice — a matter of reflection, focus and appreciation.

This piece was first published on Noozhawk.com.

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Pictured: Joyce Dudley

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

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