Four years ago today, my brother, Adam, died in a tragic canyoneering accident. I’m not going to get into those details because they really don’t matter and they’ve been rehashed time and time again over the last few years (especially the month following the accident). Suffice it to say, it was unexpected and heart-breaking.
So what, you ask? How am I supposed to be happy when someone I love dies or is incapacitated in some way or is sliding into death after a long bout of cancer? How can such grief make room for joy? Where can that joy live?
The answer: In the cracks of the heart.
Now, I’m not a shrink and I’m not going to look up studies on grief and happiness and coping, because what good would that do? Would a statistic make you feel better? Did it make me feel better? No! Besides, there’s no formula that leads you out of that labyrinth of pain and doubt and anger (yes, there’s anger).
But there’s little things that can give you a reason to smile, a reason to hold on. Maybe it’s because as a Mormon—a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—I have a more developed idea than most of what comes next, an absolute belief in the next life, that the grief becomes manageable. Or maybe it’s because I learned to remember and laugh about the good times. Maybe it’s a perfect brightness of hope for a glorious reunion in another place and another time. Regardless, these little things helped me feel my way to joy:
1. Find the tender mercies
This harkens back to an LDS talk from Elder David A. Bednar:
“I believe I have come to better understand that the Lord’s tender mercies are the very personal and individualized blessings, strength, protection, assurances, guidance, loving-kindnesses, consolation, support, and spiritual gifts which we receive from and because of and through the Lord Jesus Christ[…]Some may count this experience as simply a nice coincidence, but I testify that the tender mercies of the Lord are real and that they do not occur randomly or merely by coincidence. Often, the Lord’s timing of His tender mercies helps us to both discern and acknowledge them.”
Whether you believe or not in divine help, you can still find those little things that cushion the blow of grief. For me, it was remembering that a week before he died, Adam and I spent some time together talking. It wasn’t a big thing or a revealing conversation, but it was something I had of him to help guide me through the darkness.
Just the other week I had another tender mercy (because even after four years, the grief can still hit like a sledgehammer). We found in Adam’s things a letter that I wrote him while he was on his mission to Uruguay and that he had saved. He wasn’t the best correspondent during those two years, but obviously hearing from family was important to him.
2. Take Solace in Family
It’s amazing how happy being with family made me. These are the people that are with you your entire life, that know you and know him and can commiserate with you. More importantly, you can commiserate with them. Taking myself out of my grief by holding others as they fell apart was a balm to my soul.
Tragedy can tear a family apart, but it can draw them closer together, if you let it. We let it. Those days between Adam’s death and funeral were some of those most bittersweet that I can remember.
Remembering can be painful, but it can also be incredibly freeing. And this is best done—conveniently—with family because who better to share “That time when” memories with than the ones who were there? Just because the last memories of Adam (or insert name here) were sad, doesn’t mean that it’ll make you happier to lock away all your memories. There are so many good ones, like that time when Adam and Joe were going to sled off the roof into the snowdrifts (and it ended up just being Joe when Adam pushed him at the last minutes) or that time Adam said he wouldn’t watch the five-hour long Pride and Prejudice with me and Bonnie because the only five-hour movie he’d watch had to have a ring and the burning eye of Sauron.
You don’t have to be a writer to write. All you have to do is know how to. Spilling those feelings out onto paper can do wonders for your soul, help cleanse it. Bring a smile to your face.
True story: I was asked to write Adam’s obituary. So I left the house, took a notebook, and just stared at a blank page because I absolutely could not distill an amazing life into a handful of words. I gave up. I turned the page and started writing something completely different. A poem. What came out wasn’t always beautiful or eloquent, but it was meaningful to me. It made me happy for an instant of time.
Just long enough to write what obituary.
I did a lot of poetry writing those first few months (52 Poems to Adam—there aren’t 52 yet). And book writing (I was working on a book before he died, and I could not continue it until I wrote the grief into the story). So write (or sing or run or dance or scrapbook). Do something that can help release the tension. It’ll bring joy.
All this can bring happiness if you let it, even if it’s just a brief spark of joy that lights up your world for an instant, that’s a spark more than before. And it’ll help light your way home.