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Grief and The Guilt of Feeling Happy

 

The death of my loved one had plunged me into depths of sorrow that I never believed to exist. There were daily waves of sad emotions that barged my mind and heart. I didn’t know that I would plunge further in guilt and grief for the little bursts of happiness that I experienced.

I prepared as best as I could daily for the surprise cocktail of emotions that overwhelmed me. Like one who knew about an impending attack but was unsure which direction and time the attack was scheduled to happen.

When a loved one dies, it’s as if you reach out for someone who is always there to find that when you need them one more time, they are not there. It has been a journey filled with every emotion you can think of; sometimes, I feel them all at once.

One emotion I believed I would never experience again was the feeling of happiness and deep laughter. Occasionally I would ask myself, “will I ever truly smile again?, will I ever remember what happiness looks, sounds and feels like?”, “is it possible to have bouts of happiness when grieving?”

Each time I heard genuine laughter, it made me feel like I had spiders crawling over me in different directions. The sound of laughter irritated me.

In my head, I would say, “what’s funny? Please ‘shift’ from my side.” I mean, I was in a constant state of sadness and was sure that I would feel nothing other than sadness again.

I mentally checked out and waited for the laughter to subside before leaving, not to make anyone uncomfortable. It reminds me of a driving test instructor who writes something on the pad during your practical driving test.

I had wondered how they choose when to write; it turns out that they write nothing when you have made a mistake; they give it some moments before making the note.

I shared moments of humour and laughter we experienced on the Funeral: The Day we Committed My Spouse, Chidinma’s Body to the Earth.

I binge-watched movies and series in the early phase of my grief journey to drown and distract my grief. They worked to a large extent; they offered me temporary escapes.

It brought me back to reality when the movies showed hospital scenes or death scenes. I had become sensitive to scenes like this. To this day, scenes like this make me well up.

I pepped talked to myself, “Tolu, this sadness you’re feeling is too deep and sad, cheer up etc.” I was getting frustrated and upset with how sad I was becoming.

I switched movies and watched stand up comedies, mostly Nigerian stand-up comedies. There were some that I found funny before my grief journey. I thought it would be helpful to start with those I had seen before.

I had watched about four hours of different stand-up comedy clips on YouTube and still couldn’t smile, talk less of a laugh. I had heard these comedians often say paraphrased that “if you don’t find my joke funny, it’s not because I am not funny, but it’s because of what you’re going through.”

I never believed them until now. Even more frustrated, I switched from comedy to something else. I didn’t want to think; I wanted to numb my brain. I wanted an escape from grief.

I had now accepted that perhaps feeling good and being happy is not something I will experience for an extended period until one day.

I had slept at my usual 4 am and woke up at the usual 7:30 am. I had explored various tactics to help me sleep early. Everything to make me sleep earlier than 4 am had failed. Sleep was on an extended vacation, so I had accepted my lot and became used to this.

Something was different on the bright and cloudless morning. I usually wished to fall back to sleep when I woke up because of the emptiness and deep sadness. As soon as I wake up, it feels like my heart swells with sadness.

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This morning was different. I didn’t feel sad; I felt normal, chilled, and relaxed. I thought, “this morning feels different. What’s going on? Am I dreaming?”

I was already expecting the usual waves of sadness to flood in as they do. I sat up from the floor, which had become the new bed I slept on, went to the bathroom and returned to my bed.

I felt light, and then I thought I must be dreaming. This surely must be a dream. You know they say if you want to know whether you are not dreaming, pinch yourself. Some say you should check the clock because you won’t see the clock if you’re dreaming. Well, which one do you think I went for?

I did both. I pinched myself and checked the time. I couldn’t believe I felt lighter and had a bit of spring under my feet. “It remained small for me to start whistling, Seff.” I went downstairs to check on my family, who were staying with me.

The journey from my room to the living room is two flights of stairs didn’t take long. Pre-grief, I would make that in 30 secs or fewer. In grief, it could take up to 10 mins as I wrestle the various chatter in my head. Here I was on this sunny, cloudless morning, making my way to the living room in under one minute.

I saw my siblings and my sister-in-law in the living room as they were feeding the children their breakfast. Anisa, Josiah and Nathaniel were excited to see, as I was too.

I sat down with them, made some small talk. I went to the kitchen to grab a glass of water and didn’t feel the need to escape back to my grieving den.

I even returned to the living room to hear the beautiful, loud, chaotic noise the babies, and a toddler made while exercising their lungs. I didn’t feel anxious, irritated. It felt as if I was no longer grieving. It felt like I had momentarily deleted the memory of my loved one’s death from my mind.

I felt happy, lighter. It was a good feeling. I enjoyed being around people until, without warning, it felt like the dam of grief had broken and rapidly felt me.

There was no trigger that I can recall. There was no warning. It felt like deep sadness and emptiness filled me from my toe and was fast rising.

I couldn’t believe it! I felt guilty that I was happy. It felt like the walls were closing in on me. I felt like shouting, “Stoooooop!!!!” It felt like I had done something wrong.

It felt like ‘something, someone,’ was scolding me. It filled my thoughts with shouts. Some thoughts were degrading and mean, thoughts like “you that your wife recently died. What are you happy about? What’s making this one feel this happy?

Externally, everything was going okay. I observed the smiles in the room, one baby excited and jumping in his baby bouncer and the creative re-arranging of the living space that the other two were engaged in.

I firmly believe that emotion is contagious. Not wanting to disturb the vibe in the living room with my rising emotion of grief, I escaped as fast I could to my room by climbing two stairs at a time.

I felt heavier as I stood and returned to my room. It felt like guilt had placed larger weights on my shoulder, the springs under my feet forcefully withdrawn, and my head bowed in shame.

I was entirely in double shock, firstly that I could be happy and light whilst in deep grief. I secondly felt like I had done something wrong.

I felt so guilty for feeling happiness. Guilty thought forcefully marched into my mind like a troop in battle array approaching the battleground. I felt guilt for being happy in grief. I found it challenging to cope that there was more to my emotions than just loss.

I wondered, is it normal to feel guilty when happy in grief? I was already expressing and processing the things I wished I did differently, more or better.

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Why did a brief break of happiness make me feel guilty? I screamed, “oh, come on, give me a break!!” as loud as I could in my head. I invited myself to have a seat beside me as together explored why I felt guilty when I eventually calmed down.

A memory of when Chidinma and I were on our honeymoon in Malta came to mind. We had gone to the calm, crystal-clear waters of the Gozo Blue lagoon which reflects the cyan blue of the sky over a pure white sandy seabed to swim in the ocean. The day was hot, beautiful with sparse clouds and a gentle breeze. We were the only people of colour that were in the ocean.

I remembered loads of funny moments from getting changed to getting into the ocean. There were loads of funny moments but I will like to share one with you.

We had been swimming for about 5 minutes when Chidinma tapped me on the shoulder. Looking serious she said “baby, Tee” in the most puzzled tone as she spat water out her mouth. “Tee, this water is too salty”, I replied, “Babey, we are in the ocean.” with a grin on my face.

Not long after, we had made a new friend who had also travelled from the UK to Malta. We swam along with each other and then Chidinma said to the lady, “I can’t believe how salty this water is.” The lady looked a little puzzled.

Again, I swam towards Chidinma, and I whispered, “Babey, we are in the ocean. Ocean water is salty.” Then finally, it clicked, and we both laughed as hard as we could.

From that day, I teased her about only the things my wife would say. “The Ocean is salty.” I found the guilty feeling reducing as I reflected on this memory and didn’t know when I burst out laughing.

Of the different things I tried to overcome this guilt of happiness, I mean I have tried some conventional and unconventional methods. What I found to have particularly helped and soothe this guilt was being intentional to remember the good and happy memories my loved one, Chidinma and I shared.

It was difficult at first, but I found being present with the emotion and doing the opposite to how I feel helped. I think most of my healing has happened during my solitude moments in grief. There are some conversations that one needs to have with self. Conversation that I had with myself.

I had prepared for the emotions like guilt, anger, envy, fear, anxiety. Still, I never thought that happiness and joy could co-exist with grief. Even though everyone grieves differently, feeling guilty is part of the process.

Guilt is a state of mind, not a statement of fact, and it is not a behaviour, and often our feelings are not rational or right or wrong. It’s just the way they are. It is not what we feel that matters, the most important thing is what we do with our emotions.

Don’t hold back your emotions.

It’s often easy to dismiss emotions and act tough. I feel like we cannot live a full life when we do this. A book I read over three times in the early phase of my grief journey is A Grief Observed, written by C. S. Lewis. In his book, he wrote, “For in grief nothing stays put. One keeps emerging from a phase, but it always recurs.”

You will experience a wide range of emotions during this time–often repeatedly–as you work through your grief and make sense of your loss. A peculiar feature of the human brain is that it can experience multiple emotions simultaneously.

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Even though it’s possible to have multiple emotions acting simultaneously, none of them is lost – they’re all legitimate, real, and appropriate.

Grief may be the most difficult of all experiences to deal with, for it forces emotions to co-exist. At any given moment, people grieving may feel two completely opposing emotions.

The truth about happiness and grief existing side by side may not come easy, but accepting that both are possible is very liberating. Accepting this truth has been a beneficial ingredient in my grief journey so far.

You may find these two previous posts helpful in accepting and expressing your emotions of grief

Ultimately, grief is a strange, unique thing that affects each individual differently. That you may experience good days followed by bad or that you may be down for months with no end in sight is okay; I have not found any rules for grieving.

May I encourage you to acknowledge and reflect on your feelings about the loss of your loved one and give yourself time and space for processing and coming to terms with everything you have experienced?

Bringing your feelings to the surface and expressing them privately can be very therapeutic.

The second closest group of people on earth who also truly feel and understand what you’re going through are those who have lost their loved ones and are on the same journey as you.

Therefore, I offer you a hand of invitation to join our upcoming peer-to-peer bereavement support group.

 

I’d love to share your coping with grief story too.

I intend to expand the blog and resources on the website to include stories of other people who have lost a loved one, not limited to losing a spouse. I’d love to hear about how you handled grief. Would you please let me know if you would like to share your story.

I am also open to having anyone anonymised if that’s your preferred option. Complete the contact us form with the text “I would like to share my story.”

To Be Continued Next Wednesday…

I would like to hear from you. Would you please share your thoughts, comments and reflections below? Thank you.

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