Can you still find happiness when your heart is broken?

Happiness is a concept I’ve been struggling with lately…for the past six months, anyway.

Funny…I thought I’d experienced unhappiness before in my life. But now I think anything that’s fixable is just a bump in the road. Unless a situation is permanent…not changeable…should you really let it make you unhappy?

Six months ago, my heart broke. I’ve wondered what to do with it now. How do I find a way back to happiness…any level of happiness?

My son died. I’ve written about losing him, and the devastation that caused me, our family, his friends. When a light goes out of your life, it’s so difficult to recover what used to be normal…what I took for granted…the simple joys, laughter, hope. I’ll admit, some days I can’t even imagine the self I used to be. I’m not sure what happens with these former versions of ourselves…when life changes forever, we change too, sometimes beyond familiarity and recognition.

I don’t expect to get over the sadness. This is my new normal.

But can sadness and happiness find a way to co-exist?

I believe it’s possible. My son died, but I know he didn’t wish a forever-more sentence of unhappiness on me, or anyone else. He was escaping his pain, not intending to add to ours. But pain is inescapable for the survivors now. We struggle with it every day.

Still, is that all that’s left?

No. That can’t be right.

This is what I’m learning, coming to know, a little more every day.

I’ve learned that even while I feel the weight of sadness, I can feel grateful. Gratitude is the grace that has helped me survive. And it’s the reason I know happiness is possible.

Happiness and sadness are spun together. I glimpse that when I watch our puppy playing, or see a smile posted from one of our littles. Part of me is sad, and will be. I miss my son, and it grieves me that he’s missing so much. Like giant waves, the emotions wash over me throughout the day.

But another piece of my heart feels warm, feels the sweetness of life, the innocence of moments and beings that have no part of mourning.

This is how I experience happiness now, in moments, flashes of light that pierce the dark.

I don’t know how it works, exactly. I only know it does. I feel the ebb and flow of emotions…the sharp and bitter taste of loss, and the simple acknowledgement that there’s still beauty, and humor, and sweetness in life. And somehow, when I feel gratitude for the gifts in my life, it eases me a bit, takes the edge off the pain. Because I count my son as one of the gifts life gave me, any other gift reminds me of him. Feeling grateful for him helps me get lost in the good memories, the joy he had, and gave.

It’s a powerful antidote to losing myself in grief.

You understand? Grief isn’t done, will never be done. But gratitude overlays grief, and helps me see daylight.

I’ve known some of the power of thankfulness for years. I knew the simple act of pausing and appreciating could lift my spirit, turn my mood, salvage a bad day. But I didn’t know gratitude had the power to battle sorrow, even the sorrow of death.

When I signed up for motherhood, I signed up for whatever it brought. There are bits and pieces of raising children that aren’t fun, and certainly aren’t for the faint of heart. But you don’t escape those parts. Side by side with birthdays and giggles and the good stuff, it’s all a package.

I didn’t want this final piece of motherhood, knowing loss and living without. My grandmother, who lost a son on the brink of adulthood, said no matter how many gather for meals and holidays, photos and celebrations, there’s always one missing. And that’s heartbreakingly true.

But if loss is a constant in the universe, gratitude can be as well. I’m thankful for what I’ve had, and for what I still have. I’m thankful for support, family and friends who hold me up. I’m thankful for the memories of my son, who will always be vibrant and young, 30, and smiling at me from his photos with a look that could light up a room. I’m thankful for the faces of the next generation in the family. I’m thankful for so much.

I’ve come to think of this blending of sorrow and happiness as a painting, the kind done with a palette knife, the dark color blending and ribboning with the light.

The sadness…well, how could it be any different? But grief is shaded with gratitude. And that’s the only way forward.

Once upon a boy…Alex at 13





  • Paula Travis
    April 20, 2018, 8:00 pm  Reply

    Sheila – your words ring true, oh so true. The agony of this level of pain will eventually ease, but as you say, will never leave you. The love of one is a treasured gift. The loss of that loved one is painful, no doubt. However, Gratefulness comes in knowing the pain they suffered is no more and they can rejoice in forever peace. Love remains strong always and forever within us all..

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