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The After Series: The Guilt of Feeling Happy During Grief

by Julie Vick

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We spend so much of our waking lives avoiding death—in more ways than one. When it comes to talking about the inevitable, it isn’t always easy. So the Orange Dot is aiming to shine a light on these stories, in hopes that it may help others. The After Series features essays from people around the world who’ve experienced loss and want to share what comes after.

When I boarded a plane from the U.S. to Italy earlier this year, I tried to figure out how to avoid small talk with the stranger sitting next to me.

“Are you traveling for business or pleasure?” I imagined him asking.

“Neither,” I would say. “My father just died.”

My dad had passed away in an accident while traveling in Italy with my mom, and I booked a flight there as quickly as possible. The news was fresh, and I didn’t feel like I could discuss it without crying.

Not that crying in front of a stranger has to be a bad thing—he could have been a grief counselor or had his own story of grief to share. A 2014 study found that talking with strangers can increase people’s happiness. But I’m guessing the study participants did not unload serious news on the person they had just met. And at that moment on the plane, I wasn’t in the mood to talk.

Negative feelings can often be all-consuming, so I’ve started to look for whatever small shimmers of light I can find.

When I put on my headphones and scrolled through the entertainment options on the screen in front of me, I realized I was actually excited at the chance to watch a movie that didn’t feature animated characters or dogs dressed like astronauts. It was the first time I had been on an overseas flight in years, and there was something nice about the moment—being buffered from my day-to-day life in the muffled darkness of the plane.

In the past, I would have felt guilty about seeing any positive side to my awful situation, but I had recently learned about the concept of holding opposing feelings at the same time. It can be hard to not be weighed down by one emotion—particularly a negative one—but feelings can be layered with contradictions. We can be both angry and happy, both sad and relieved, or both frustrated and grateful. I had heard about the idea in an interview with writer Cheryl Strayed, and it helped me manage my grief in the immediate aftermath of my father’s death.

So on that plane, I found a movie, pushed “play,” and settled in for the ride.

When I arrived in Tuscany, it was hard not to notice the beauty of my surroundings—rolling hills covered with vineyards and dotted with tall, thin cypress trees. The small town we stayed in had shops filled with local cheeses and olive oils and stone walls with blooming honeysuckles spilling over them. The picturesque environment made focusing on the moment easier at times, even if those moments were both good and bad.

My two sisters had arrived before me to meet my mom and help make arrangements for my father’s body and the return trip home. Even though the circumstances were bad, we wouldn’t have normally had a chance to spend that amount of time together because of our commitments at home, and I was grateful for the present—even with a painful absence. I recognized that there were simple pleasures, like a plate of freshly made gnocchi, even if the meal was accompanied by tears.

When I returned home, I found that my kids also brought me back into the moment more. It was challenging to deal with my own grief while also dealing with the day-to-day requirements of managing small children, and part of me thought it would have been easier if I could just be alone. But kids make regular practice of living in the moment, and when I found my thoughts running away from me, I could focus on a tiny smile or belly laugh in front of me.

I have found this practice of not pushing aside difficult moments, but being open to both joy and pain at the same time a helpful thought process in many situations. When dealing with tough times, negative feelings can often be all-consuming, so I’ve started to look for whatever small shimmers of light I can find.

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Submissions for The After Series are now closed. We continue to explore and discuss mental health (and everything else that occurs around life and death) on The Orange Dot. To get a sense of what else we might be looking for, read our guidelines for submissions.

Julie Vick

Julie Vick is a writer living in Colorado whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. You can read more of her writing at julievick.com or follow her on Twitter @vickjulie.

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