The day we buried my mother was the second worst day of my life, the first being the day she died. Happiness and good cheer felt like distant memories. They felt like something I’d lost when she died. But my mom knew that even in the darkest times, we can still laugh; we can still smile. Those are the times we need it the most. Smiles and laughter may feel uncomfortable because it may seem like you are moving on or forgetting about your person. But it only means that you’re learning how to live with loss. My friend the poet Maggie Smith calls it “the andness of things.”
Death requires you to reconfigure your expectations around pleasure and joy. Things that previously only brought you joy — getting a promotion, having your nails done, or watching a football game — may be tinged with sadness or nostalgia because your partner, mother, or son isn’t there with you. I absolutely do not advise a “fake it till you make it” approach. It may seem counterintuitive, but to access your joy, you must sit with your grief while allowing natural moments of respite.
When I returned to my apartment in New York after losing my mother, all I was thinking about was survival. I had to remind myself to eat and take medication to sleep. I was wildly anxious and depressed, and I kept asking myself, “How am I going to get through this? Am I going to get through this?” Those were the two questions running through my brain 24 hours a day. I wasn’t ready to talk about my grief or share memories of my dead mother with my friends or family. I needed a break from it all, but I didn’t even know how to express that.
My friend Matt insisted on taking me out to a bar we all loved at the time, a loud and rowdy spot, the kind of place that made serious conversations impossible. I was not ready to go to a bar. It felt wrong. I was sad; I missed my mom terribly, and I wanted to be left alone in my misery. He insisted, and then when we got there, he proceeded to do a “Stuntman Shot,” which I had never seen before. He snorted salt, took a shot of tequila, and then squirted lime in his eye. I laughed out loud at his absurd and childish behavior, and it is admittedly one of the only memories I have of my first days back in New York after my mother died. His foolishness was exactly what I needed that night.
You are worthy of joy. And not in the “your person would want you to be happy” sort of way, which is probably true but annoying to hear on repeat. You deserve joy simply as a living and breathing human being. You deserve joy, even if it is at times tinged with grief. Your joy is as deserving as a child’s — the most innocent of us all. When was the last time you went sledding? You deserve that kind of joy, too.
If you ask those who knew my mother what they remember most about her, they will tell you about her smile, how she was always smiling, and not in a forced, smiling-through-the-pain kind of way, but in a way that was genuine and full of love. She was sick often and honest about her struggles. She knew joy was essential to her survival and any ounce of healing.
If you are going to live a full life after loss, you have to find your way back to joy. Through all of her physical pain, my mom was able to access joy. Experiencing joy for most people is often in the simplest things. My mom didn’t have a lot financially, but she saved little bits of money throughout the year to fund her joy, which generally centered around celebrations and giving to others. She did whatever she needed to make it happen, even if making it happen simply involved sitting in a wheelchair, or even a hospital bed, bossing the rest of us around. She understood on a cellular level that no matter how hard life is, no matter how much grief or trauma you’re forced to manage, life is still meant to be lived. My mom literally died laughing. Her commitment to joy is my inheritance.
Do not feel like you are deceiving your person by experiencing joy. Experiencing joy is one of the many ways you can continue to love them.
Marisa Renee Lee is the author of Grief Is Love: Living With Loss, which came out this week. She’s also the CEO of Beacon Advisors, co-founder of Supportal, and founder of The Pink Agenda. She is a former appointee in the Obama White House and served as the Managing Director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a nonprofit born out of President Obama’s call to action to address the barriers to success that boys and young men of color disproportionately face. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, Glamour, MSNBC and other publications. Marisa Renee Lee is a graduate of Harvard College and an obsessive home cook. She lives near Washington, D.C., with her husband, son and dog.
(Top photo by Mosuno/Stocksy. Author photo of Marisa Renee Lee by David Needleman. Excerpt from Grief Is Love published with permission.)