Sunday, December 20, 2009

It's All Right to be Happy

I was driving along a couple of days ago, thinking of Leif. For some reason, I always think of him when I'm driving alone, and usually it makes me sad. I often talk to him then, though I have no illusion that he is there listening.

It was a gorgeous day, and I realized I was actually feeling happy, even though I was still missing him and thinking of him. The thought came into my head, as though someone had said it, "It's all right to be happy."

That made me think. I realized that a few days earlier, I had been happy on a bike ride, the same kind of happiness I used to feel before Leif died, a real appreciation of the beautiful day. Its not that there hasn't been any happiness since he died. There has, but it hasn't been the same. It's been in some sense subdued, or tinged with the knowledge of Leif's death and the sadness and regret that brings, the feeling of a hole in my heart that is never going to be filled.

These two instances of a real happiness, not weighed down by grief, were a window into what was and what I expect will be. The thought or voice telling me it was all right to be happy was something (me? Leif?) giving me permission to feel it without guilt. I asked myself the question, "What kind of a mother can be happy when her child is dead, particularly the kind of sad death Leif died?"

I think the answer is not simple. It depends on time. It depends upon the mother. It depends upon those around her. It depends upon being able to live through grief and mourning long enough to understand that it will in some sense always be with me, but it doesn't have to overwhelm everything else forever, that time and coming to terms (not peace, terms) with it will allow happiness to shine through, even while understanding that the sadness will still come back at times, and so will the tears. It depends upon the slow appreciation of something I knew all along; all of the good people and things I still have in my life.

I think some people carry grief like a badge, like a new identity, and don't know how to give it up, thinking there is something wrong with them if they do. I remember feeling that I would somehow be a bad mother if I could be happy again after Leif's death, even though I knew that was wrong. Feelings and ways of doing things can become a habit, too. Grieving is emotionally all-consuming at first. It wears off only slowly and slightly at a time, and it is right for the loss one has been dealt. The transition from that encompassing misery to the kind of sadness that comes over one occasionally when one thinks of certain things or is reminded of the loss is neither easy nor a straight path. It twists and turns. It doubles back. It ebbs and then crashes in full force. It was in the same week that I was driving home one night and was overcome by sadness, thinking that Leif would not be here for Christmas, the second one since he died.

I think it will be like this for a long time.

But it is all right to be happy, and I will be glad for the days and hours when happiness comes.

How I wish Leif had been happy, as happy as he was in this picture.


This photo of Leif was taken in our old stone house in July 2003, when we were all sitting around the dining room table having a great conversation and beer (which Leif brought) in Peter W's German beer steins. His brother, Peter A. was there, and so was Darlene, and Marcus, and Leif's friend Michael. It was a happy evening.

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