Many well-meaning friends and colleagues have told me since my husband died that they want to cheer me up, make me laugh, or make me smile. Well, no need. I am very happy, laugh and smile regularly, and actually appreciate being overcome with grief sometimes.
One of the ways our culture’s inability to deal with death manifests is in the mistaken insistence that happy and sad are opposites and that if you are sad, you can’t be happy, and vice versa. People take my sadness to be an obstacle to happiness and determine to “fix” the problem of my sadness. There are several errors in this logic:
- Happy and sad are not actually opposites. The opposite of happiness is the absence of happiness—or apathy. The opposite of sadness is the absence of sadness—also apathy. Happy and sad are both opposites of apathy but not of each other. Happiness and sadness co-exist all the time—I experience deep happiness and deep sadness at the same time regularly right now. Every morning when I sit on the bench commemorated to my husband, I feel a deep sense of happiness that I can sense his presence there, that I was lucky enough to be able to raise the money for the commemoration, and that his legacy of generosity lives on in a small way through the bench. At the same time, I am sad that he’s not here to see that legacy or to sit with me on the bench and appreciate the beautiful fall colors on display around it.
- Sadness is no obstacle to happiness. I have felt at least a moment of sadness every single day since my husband died, usually triggered by Facebook reminding me of a memory involving my husband, or realizing it’s the anniversary of something (a particularly wonderful camping trip, for example), or a random thought suddenly connecting me to his favorite food or a saying of his or an experience we shared. Halloween was his favorite holiday, so right now I am surrounded by triggers. And yet, I have also—every single day—felt immense joy when seeing my dogs’ silly antics, visiting with my daughter every day after work, noticing the beauty of the home my husband remodeled for us, etc.
I am not feeling less joy now that I am a widow; in fact, sometimes I think I actually feel more joy now, as if the welcoming in of strong emotion (see my comment above about appreciating being overcome by grief sometimes) opened me up to stronger happy emotions as well as sad emotions. The grief and sadness also co-exist in the moment with joy; for example, seeing my friends post on Facebook about their Halloween plans simultaneously fills me with joy remembering the gusto my husband brought to our Halloweens and an intense wistfulness that I’ll never see him gleefully describing his vision for a new costume (that would inevitably garner him second place in a costume contest—he never, ever won but was always a contender).
- Sadness is not a problem. It’s a completely healthy and normal response to the death of a loved one. This is perhaps the most significant reason to not try to cheer up a grieving person. Telling a grieving person they need to cheer up—and make no mistake, when you tell someone you intend to cheer them up, you are telling them that you have a problem with their current state—assumes that grief and sadness are feelings one should not have or should not demonstrate having.
Lately when people tell me they intend to cheer me up, I respond with, “I’m good with my current emotional state, so no thanks.” Everyone I have said that to has registered surprise on their face, but most people back down from the cheering up mission. One person argued, insisting it was no trouble for them to make me laugh, to which I said, “You’re not getting my point. I want to feel like this right now. It’s healthy and feels right.”
If a grieving person asks to be cheered up, by all means, go for it. But if they do not ask you to cheer them up, let them be sad, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps recognizing that you’re the one with the problem, not them, can help you refrain from insisting on cheering them up.