My friend Melanie passed away about a month ago. Though she died of natural causes, it still seemed sudden. Certainly she was much too young — only 56.
Her memorial service was sad. Her widower and young adult children put on brave faces, but we could all feel their heartache, along with our own sorrow. Yet, paradoxically, funerals like Melanie’s can be an important piece of the happiness puzzle. This may not be true for all funerals. When my friend Kathy was murdered by her husband (who then committed suicide), her service was a wrenching river of sobs. Also, for the immediate family and closest of friends, the weight of grief and shock may be overwhelming for some time to come — though even for them, in the midst of pain, there is ample room for gratitude. For the rest of us, when people who are not children die because their bodies give out, funerals and memorial services can strengthen our individual and collective happiness muscles.
Not that I was happy at the end of the day. I wasn’t. I was weary, and wanted to do nothing other than take a hot bath and drink a glass of wine. Spending my day making a couple dozen deviled eggs for the post-memorial service reception, then attending the service and reception, before collapsing sadly at home is not my idea of a good time. However, to live a meaningful life (without which true happiness may well be impossible), we have to do a lot of things we’d rather not. Just look at the other end of the life spectrum, and ask parents of newborns how much they enjoy sleep deprivation and all the other sacrifices they are making to raise flourishing children. Love, relationships, integrity — all come with a price tag.
It is easy to be happy in happy circumstances. It is much harder to find the joy and beauty in life under difficult circumstances. I am beginning to believe this ability is a key distinction between happier people and less happy people. During times of normal sadness (not extreme circumstances) two strategies may be particularly helpful:
- Benefit finding — more popularly known as looking for the silver linings; and
- The power of “and” — that is, the capacity to hold onto more than one concept at the same time, even if they seem contradictory (for example, both sweetness and sorrow). Indeed, maybe the “and” is necessary. As Francis Bacon said, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”
Also, I write this with all due respect to Melanie, who was a writer herself. Not only that, Melanie studied happiness with me and even taught it to her high school English students. Melanie loved learning, and inquiry into human affairs. She had two Master’s degrees, one in English Literature from Oxford. I’m pretty sure she would appreciate the Francis Bacon quote, and my introspection. So, allowing for the sorrow and the benefits, here are some silver linings from her memorial service and reception:
1. Funerals allow us to feel our feelings. When I learned that Melanie had died, I sort of went numb. I was entertaining out-of-town visitors for several days, and had to focus on their needs and welfare. All I could think about Melanie was, “this makes no sense.” She was supposed to have joined me for a meditation class the evening before she died. I just could not wrap my head around the fact that she was dead. I knew I should be crying, but the tears wouldn’t come. Finally, finally, as I sat in a pew waiting for the service to begin, I could feel my tears begin, too.
The crying was important. As Tal Ben-Shahar points out in his book Being Happy:
- “All our feelings flow along the same emotional pipeline, so when we block painful emotions, we are also indirectly blocking pleasurable ones. … Painful emotions are an inevitable part of the experience of being human, and therefore rejecting them is ultimately rejecting part of our humanity. To lead a fulfilling life — a happy life — we need to allow ourselves the range of human emotions. In other words, we need to give ourselves the permission to be human.”
2. Funerals help us be good. Back in 2005, a woman named Deidre Sullivan shared her “This I Believe” essay on NPR, an essay entitled “Always Go to the Funeral.” Though I love the “This I Believe” series, Sullivan’s essay is the only one I can remember — not the words, just the profound importance of showing up in these critical moments. A few years ago, my son gave me a book of “This I Believe” essays, including Sullivan’s. Here’s part of what she wrote:
- “‘Always Go to the Funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully unattended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been between good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.”
I wouldn’t say I definitely didn’t want want to attend the service, exactly. I knew that would be a time to learn more about Melanie’s life, and to give and receive love with fellow mourners. What I didn’t want to do was make the deviled eggs. Yet that too is love, and necessary. Nor did I want to make dinner to take to the grieving family. I’m not much of a cook, so these were the inconveniences for me. In my humdrum battle of “doing good versus doing nothing,” both heart and conscience dictated that I choose good.
3. Funerals build community. The deviled eggs and meal train obligations weren’t just for Melanie and her family — I was also upholding my community obligations. In 2001, we moved to this corner of Vermont because we wanted to live in a strong community, and boy, do we! When word of Melanie’s death spread, so did the phone calls and emails: who will sing in the pick-up choir? What meals does the family need, and who is organizing? How about the reception — how do we sign up for that? How about setting up, and cleaning up? What else does the family need?
Our ability to come together is no accident. We work — and play — at building community, all year long, year after year, probably for several centuries now. We all do our part, in ways large and small, from helping to organize the winter Mardis Gras, marching in the Fourth of July parade, setting up tables for the Corn Roast — and, showing up for the funerals. Melanie’s service both displayed the strength of our community, and further strengthened it.
Perhaps appropriately, a toddler’s birthday party took place in our community center just a few hours before the post-memorial service reception. The full panoply of life, made better by community.
During the service itself, I marveled at and felt grateful for everyone in attendance. Melanie’s community. My community. We can all count on it, because we all show up. I was overwhelmed by the love and also the awareness that each of us is here only temporarily. At the reception, I hugged two (of many) cherished community members and friends, told each that I loved her and was grateful for her, and received similar warmth in return. I also spent a lot of time in the kitchen doing the dishes, because this is what community is all about.
For Melanie, here’s another Francis Bacon quote: “There is no man that imparteth his joy to his friends, but he joyeth the more; and no man that imparteth his grief to his friends but he grieveth the less.”
We share the joy, we share the grief, we share the cooking and cleaning up. We build community.
4. Funerals open the door to valuable introspection. A few winters back, I took a week long online happiness course from the Pursuit of Happiness folks. One of the assignments was to consider what we wanted the speakers at our own funerals to say. I think this is an incredibly valuable exercise, and one that naturally arises while attending a memorial service. What will be said about me?
Maybe that sounds narcissistic, but I actually find it a helpful touchstone. As we go through our ordinary days, adding up to our lifetimes — what do we want that final tally to look like?
That’s one aspect of introspection. The other is, what do you not want to regret at death’s door? You, me — who wants to be dying and say, but wait!! I always meant to (fill in the blank). Too late, then.
In 2012, a palliative care nurse named Bonnie Ware published the results of her inquiry into the regrets of hospice care patients. Her study, “Top Five Regrets of the Dying” found these five common themes: “1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 2. I wish I didn’t work so hard. 3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. 4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. 5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
When I die, I want to say, I am satisfied, not “I wish.” I want to be comfortable with having led a full, rich life. One that included funerals and deviled eggs. A life of love, service, fun, and courage. One that was as happy as possible. That’s what I’m working on. How about you?