Joy is a stupid word.
Or at least it feels that way when you’re living with grief. Very little feels like “joy” or “happiness” when you’re bound by this complexity of navigating a whole new world without your companion animal.
Our host, Angela Schneider of Big White Dog Photography in Spokane, Washington, explores the challenges we face in grief, especially when we’re faced with people who want us to be more positive and, ahem, “get over it.”
But the cult of positivity doesn’t serve everyone.
Angela emphasizes the importance of acknowledging our feelings, embracing the emptiness we feel and redefining the word “joy” in our new world.
Remember, it’s OK to not conform to societal expectations. Finding contentment in the present moment may be the only way you need to feel right now.
What to listen for
2:43 Is the real work to be happy or simply to be alive?
5:00 Why the words “joy” and “happy” might feel uncomfortable
8:00 The experience of witnessing someone else’s grief
9:45 Steps you can take to find your peace
If you need extra help
Hi, we’re back.
I took an extra couple of weeks off because, well, because.
The holidays can be rough. And this past one was particularly so. It all of a sudden hit me on Christmas morning that I miss my mom, but more than I miss my mom, I miss the relationship we could have had, maybe should have had.
But that might be a topic for another episode, and it may not even be the right one for a podcast centred on pets. That’s OK. I can always work that stuff out by writing … ooh! Now there’s an episode we need to do …
Anyhow, I ramble …
The other thing about the holidays that can just really suck when you’ve experienced a profound grief, like when you lose your best fur friend … we’re expected to be joyful.
Now, before the break, I reminded y’all that you don’t have to participate in the trappings of the holidays if you aren’t feeling it.
You don’t have to participate in the trappings of anything if you aren’t feeling it.
Luckily, I don’t have to make a lot of those choices. We’ve done the same Christmas for the last several years. Friendsmas. My husband’s longtime friends come down for a day of playing cards, prime rib, drinks and merriment.
We don’t do office Christmas parties, don’t buy gifts for anyone and generally just keep things pretty quiet. It’s been that way for a long time.
I do, however, miss those Tim Hortons gift cards my mother would send me every year. They would come in handy for our trips to Canada from Spokane, Washington. We have one next week and I sure could use a handful of them for some Timbits.
Shortly after I published that episode I heard these words during a grief training webinar I attended:
“We’re obsessed with happiness but the real work isn’t to be happy. It’s to be alive.”
That quote comes from Los Angeles psychotherapist and author Francis Weller.
I’ve sat with that thought for quite a bit these last few weeks, over whether being alive is possible without happiness or if happiness is possible, and in light of the last two episodes, one about managing the holidays and the other about self-care and healing the heart, it dawned on me that I’m not sure I know what the word “joy” even means.
It’s a simple word, really.
Three stupid letters.
It conjures up images of smiles, laughter … I don’t know … children playing in a park and letting balloons go into the sunlight.
It seems silly, light-hearted.
And yet that single three-letter word echoes hollow in a brain that continues to work through the grief I’ve experienced in losing Dad, Mom, my sweet boy, my gentle giant Shep.
It isn’t that I feel being happiness betrays the pain that resides in my heart from their losses. I don’t feel guilty for wanting to find happiness or joy or whatever it is.
Although both of those are very real and very valid feelings we can have when we’re in grief.
Joy, as much as I can figure, is multifaceted and deeply personal.
Just like grief is.
Grief and loss dig a hole in our hearts and leave us changed forever. They leave scars and, just by being awake, we can be subject to reminders of what we’ve lost, even years or decades later.
Joy or happiness can be like a distant memory, a figure fading off into the distance in our brain’s rearview mirror. We remember moments of it, times of laughter and merriment but today they might seem like figments of our imagination.
And while we might laugh at funny things, we never truly feel it in our hearts. Our eyes don’t always light up at the sight of things that maybe once moved us to a sense of happiness.
“Happy” feels nebulous, an amorphous blob that is difficult to define, impossible to embrace.
Any positive emotions we may want to or choose to feel come to us differently … quietly, subtly, understated, all the while knowing that our losses are lying just below the surface.
And we are met by friends, family members, acquaintances who don’t understand the depth of our loss, especially when it comes to our pets. We’ve often discussed on this platform the idea of disenfranchised grief, one that is not accepted by society at large, because our companion animals aren’t viewed as equal value to that of a human.
They want to fix us when grief is not something to be fixed.
They want to make us feel better, because, well I guess if we don’t become joyful and happy again, we’re going to suck to be around.
Megan Devine writes in “It’s OK That You’re Not OK” that the cult of positivity does us all a disservice.
“It leads us to believe we’re more in charge of the world than we are, and holds us responsible for every pain and heartbreak we endure,” she says. “It sets up a one-false-move world, in which we must be careful not to upset the gods, or karma, or our bodies with our thoughts and intentions.
“It co-opts tools of comfort and liberation by forcing them into the service of denial and self-deception. It makes us speak useless platitudes to those in grief, harping on some glorious imagined future reward while ignoring their very real and current pain.”
In a way, I get it.
Some people need to be on this quest for joy and happiness and constant positivity. It fills them in a way I have never been able to understand.
In truth, even before my losses started piling up I looked at them as people with something to hide, something darker and maybe even more sinister under the surface. That’s at least the story I told myself for my own entertainment. I like to make up stories about people, don’t you?
But someone else’s grief and loss can make someone acutely aware of their own vulnerability to it, to their own mortality even.
Grief is hard. No, it’s not hard. It fucking sucks. It shatters the world we know, the fragile sense of peace we may have found on any given day.
And what the positive people don’t know is that to sit with someone in their grief — rather than to dismiss it with a “you can find joy in your new dog!” or a “go for a walk with his leash, it will make you feel better!” — is as beautiful and profound as their love for their pet is.
To witness someone’s grief is often to see the rawest of emotions take hold.
To acknowledge and validate their pain is to give them their space in the world, to allow them to feel accepted and a little normal at this time when nothing feels normal … whatever that is.
We connect over this shared human experience, these moments that are a very real part of the human experience, and we start to truly understand what the word “empathy” means.
We recognize and understand that this pain, this suffering is a reminder that life is fragile, that we don’t have a moment to waste and how important it is to hang on to and foster the relationships that are meaningful … and maybe to let a few others go.
And after all that, you might be thinking, “OK fine, yeah, but what do we do about it?”
OK, first off, remember you are not a bug in the system that needs to be fixed.
We can, however, do a few things to get us closer to a place where we might let the laughter and happiness hit deep in the feels again.
1. Acknowledge what you’re feeling and that everything has changed. Your routine has been upended. No more walkies, no more barks for dinner, no more pacing for potty time, no more snuggles and scritches and belly rubs.
2. Give yourself permission to feel this emptiness. Give it a name and take power in noting that it exists. Ignoring it gives it power.
3. Redefine what joy and happiness mean to you. Someone else’s definition of it is going to suck, especially if they try forcing it on you with platitudes and empty expressions of sympathy.
4. Find moments of gratitude. They could be in the simplest of things, the warmth of the sun on your face. The treat of a Big Mac and an extra large Coke (aka Angela’s hangover meal), the support of a good friend. These will give us ways to redefine and cultivate our own sense of happiness.
5. Be patient with yourself. This shit takes time. Months, years, decades. I’m recording this on the 28th anniversary of my father’s death. I still have moments of grief for him, moments of grief for Shep who’s been gone for 10 years this August.
6. Create something. Write, paint, draw, whatever outlet you find that allows you to express your deepest feelings in a nonverbal way. You don’t even have to be good at this stuff, no one ever has to see it. Creating allows us to feel agency, a little power in shaping our own narrative, giving life to something new in the face of our loss.
7. Seek support. I know I’m going to start to sound like a broken record but without good support we are left to navigate this journey alone, unacknowledged and unvalidated. Our grief may never seem real. Find someone in your sphere who gets it, reach out to Beth at honoringouranimals.com or drop me a DM on Instagram or Facebook.
It’s entirely possible that “joy” and “happiness” are not impossible to rediscover.
Their definitions, however, are different after the incredible pain you’re feeling after losing the deepest, most unconditional love you’ve ever felt.
Let those positive people go off on their own journey while they ignore the pieces of us that make us us now.
While we’re putting those pieces back together to try and feel whole again, we can find moments of contentment and peace for what our lives are like now,
Eventually, those may become joy again.
But for now, contentment is all right with me.