I often get told, “you’re always smiling” or “you smile a lot.” It’s meant in a positive way of course but I can’t help but reflect on it. A year ago, I might have felt guilty for being told I’m smiling. I had questioned whether I was allowed to feel happy after such a loss and if I was happy, just how happy I was allowed to be. I wanted to look up in a rule book: how often is a “good” widow supposed to smile or feel happy? I didn’t want to be disrespectful to Mike or for others to think I wasn’t sad anymore. I was sad but there was room for happiness too.
I don’t feel that way anymore about smiling. Part of it is I really don’t care what others think of me and my happy/sad balance. The bigger part and more important realization is that it is only because I have been so incredibly sad that I can genuinely appreciate when I feel happy. You see, when I smile and laugh I am so aware of it. I’m so conscious of feeling happy. I don’t think there has been a time since Mike died that I smiled or felt happy for a prolonged period of time without internally acknowledging that, “hey, I’m feeling happy right now and this is really nice.”
It was so hard to genuinely smile and feel happy for a long time. I still smiled after Mike died but I did it because it was a social norm and what you are suppose to do with your face not because I felt it. It was so hard to do. I remember being at my friend’s baby shower shortly after Mike died and taking a group picture with my friends. What are you supposed to do in a picture other than smile, especially when your friend is experiencing one of the greatest moments in her life? I wouldn’t be the person ruining the picture standing there with a sullen face. I didn’t feel like smiling but I did it. I just didn’t feel anything with it. Like nothing. I literally had to think, “how do I physically make myself have a smile on my face and hold it and how long can I hold it for?” It was a forced fake smile and looking back at the picture, it looked pretty pathetic too.
It was in those early days that I discovered what it meant to be sad and feel hopeless. I understand what it means to be in such depths of sorrow that a simple smile for 5 seconds requires all your energy and thinking. I know the effort required to try to climb your way out of your dark hole towards a scary unknown while trying to convince yourself that you want it when you really don’t. To wonder if you’ll ever feel happiness again but not really caring if you ever do.
But somehow, slowly, through all of that despair, some happiness started to seep into the cracks in my sorrow. I recognized it because it felt so different from what I had been experiencing. It surprised me. I wondered if this was “it,” if I was “better” – whatever that meant. I contemplated if I even wanted to be “better.” Sadness had made a home in me and I was use to it now. Plus, it let me know that my loss was close. The happiness was only for a fleeting moment at first. I retreated back into my despair. I knew it couldn’t last and I didn’t want it to anyways. The happiness came back though. Maybe for a little longer the next time. Then sadness returned again. It is a cycle. But I started to look forward to the times I would feel happy. I started to seek them out. I started to recognize that feeling happy doesn’t mean I wasn’t or won’t ever be sad about Mike. Being happy doesn’t mean I’m not still grieving and missing my person at the same time. As I accepted this, slowly, the happiness waves started to last a little longer. Eventually, what was once a norm of sadness with moments of happiness reversed to be mostly happiness with waves of sadness. Sometimes the happiness lasts so long that I even question if the sadness is gone for good. If NOW I am “better.” I can feel so happy that sadness seems like a far distant memory. But sadness comes back. Sometimes for a moment, an hour, a day, or a week. It knocks me down out of nowhere and tries to restrain me there. My grief still demands to be acknowledged but maybe just not as often anymore. That’s okay. Feeling grief when it demands to be felt allows me to have space to feel other things too. It allows me to appreciate my other feelings and moments that make me feel alive.
So when the sadness retreats and I feel joy, I’m going to really feel it. I’m going to smile and laugh and soak all the good things in. Whether it’s a person, a moment, or something beautiful I encounter. I’m going to acknowledge it. I’m going to seek more of it out. I’m going to lean into the happiness. I know that even when it lasts a long time that it can’t stay forever so I want to make the most of it when I can. I know I’ll feel sad and missing Mike will sweep my feet away from under me again at some point. But I don’t know when and I don’t know for how long. I can only hope that I’ll be able to pick myself up from it again, like I’ve done so many times before. In the meantime, I’ll take whatever joy I can get. I want more of that. I know happiness because I know pain. I’ve felt the stark difference. I so appreciate when my mind allows me to feel happy. I feel so fortunate that I’m able to experience that emotion. I feel the smile on my face and it feels good. I am lucky. I don’t take for granted that my smile was not always there and was not always easy. When someone tells me I smile a lot, I want to smile bigger and say, “thank you, I know.”