In April of 2014, I was riding an exceptionally happy wave in my life. Then, abruptly and shockingly, the wave plummeted, propelling me into the world of grieving instead.
There were many reasons for my happiness high back then, including a week-long residence at Kripalu— a yoga and meditation retreat in the mountains of western Massachusetts — as part of the Certificate in Positive Psychology program with Tal Ben-Shahar and the Wholebeing Institute. My sister-in-law met me at Kripalu so we could drive together to a beach house we had rented on the North Carolina Outer Banks for our “Joyful Creativity Retreat.” Both weeks were very happy-making.
Back home, more happiness awaited. With my Gross National Happiness USA and Happiness Alliance colleagues, I was part of the planning team for a national happiness conference to be held at the end of May. I wasn’t just planning — I was writing my keynote speech for the opening session on why activists in the Gross National Happiness movement should also cultivate personal happiness. It was all pretty heady, and, again, happy.
Plus, it was spring.
Then, a few days after I got home, the other side of life showed up. I learned that, while I was away, my dear friend Kathy Washburn had been murdered by her husband, who then took his own life. At first, I could not — literally, could not — believe that it was true. It simply made no sense. But it was true.
I’m no expert on grief, but I was told that losing someone through a violent act is harder to cope with than other forms of death. I’ve been wondering lately if losing a loved one to Covid-19, with its very lonely, isolated last moments, might similarly create a harder kind of grief. In any case, Kathy’s funeral was the most upsetting memorial service I’ve ever been to. I sobbed copiously. So did many other mourners. It just didn’t make sense that Kathy was gone.
I didn’t know the others at the service very well, since Kathy and I lived on opposite sides of a Vermont mountain range and didn’t share overlapping social circles. We first met at an out-of-state craft show. Kathy was a potter, who painted designs like birch trees and moose on her mugs and platters. She was a dog lover, a former special education teacher who loved to take young adults under her wing, and a big laugher. She laughed frequently and enthusiastically. I think her laughter is what she will be most remembered for.
When I left the craft show world to go to mediation school, Kathy hired me as one of her painters. We talked for hours as we painted. We were the same age, had similar world views, and could safely be open and candid with one another. She loved my grad school stories, and had great faith in my ability to be a good mediator. We were kindred spirits.
Her death hit me hard.
I’ve been thinking about Kathy and those grief filled days lately thanks to Covid-19, and the national epidemic of grief we’re all feeling, in varying degrees. There is so much to grieve for, most especially the lonely deaths of loved ones, and, in a different but also profound way, the loss of jobs and any semblance of financial security. I think of the daily struggles of medical staff, grocery store clerks, and the unsung heroes who keep all the essential facilities clean brings grief, too. You all know what’s been lost: “normalcy,” a sense that everything was maybe kind of okay, lots of fun stuff — and even activities we never looked forward to, like grocery shopping or going to the dentist.
The other day, our family dentist called to tell us that she will not re-open until June of 2021! I was surprised to find myself feeling distressed that I couldn’t go to the dentist! Which brings me to the children. How many of them are surprised to realize how badly they want to return to school? I hope that this pandemic will actually, ultimately, lead to a brighter future for all our children. Still, in the short term, what has made me saddest is observing how social distancing has affected my eight year old granddaughter — robbed suddenly of her friends, her school, and her biggest passion in life, gymnastics. Her tears break my heart.
But here’s the comfort, perhaps: you can feel free to embrace your grief because your happiness will return. Indeed, during my Kathy grief, knowing what steps I could take to cultivate personal happiness when I was finally ready to do so gave me freedom to cry and sleep as much as I needed. I’ve learned that it works the other way, too: embracing the reality of suffering better equips us to be happy, because we can’t turn off the sad without also turning off the happy. As Golda Meir put it, “Those who do not know how to to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.”
This does not necessarily mean that we ever get back what we lost. Perhaps, if you lost a job, you may end up in a more satisfying position. Or, on the macro level, our whole world may be evolving to be a better place. But, let’s keep it real: the 65,000 people who have officially died of Covid-19 in the United States as of this writing are never coming back. Our children will never have these months of schooling back. The losses will remain true, forever.
Nonetheless, you are still likely to be happy again. There’s a theory that we all have a “set point for happiness,” kind of like a thermostat. When we experience marvelous and joyful events, our happiness will spike. Likewise, in times of sorrow and pain, our happiness plunges. Either way, our level of happiness eventually winds up back at that natural set point. Superman actor Christopher Reeve, for example, is said to have been a very happy man at the end of his life, despite the accident which left him a quadraplegic. I have to imagine he experienced a period of grief and rage … but, after a time, returned to his apparently high set point.
BabySteps: You can rewire your brain to be an overall happier person, with a higher set point. That takes time and a commitment to happiness practices, which you can do even now in the throes of grief, albeit perhaps in small doses. I have good days and bad, days when I desperately need a good cry or just go back to bed after lunch. Nonetheless, I have my current happiness practices: meditation (several days a week), gratitude (both in a nightly journal and observations throughout the day), beauty and savoring, exercise (most days), and spending time with loved ones (virtually or at home, even when it’s hard, every day). There’s one more practice that gives me great comfort: learning.
The New Economics Foundation say learning is one of the five keys to wellbeing, and that is how I bookend my days. After my morning coffee, I spend about a half hour learning Spanish with Duolingo, an online language platform. At night, I am currently reading Bill Bryson’s in-depth, non-fiction exploration of the human Body. Next up is John McPhee’s daunting tome on geology. There are no external forces compelling me to study Spanish or read science books. I do both because it makes me feel better.
And that is plenty good enough in this times.