Why I Smile: Three Ways I Find Joy Despite Grief
When it seems to be the end of the world as you know it
past the parking lots
through the camping grounds
by the picnics and over the overlook bridge
past the dirt paths and flats
over the billy goat rocks
by the cliffs even when you think you’ll fall off
venture to the edge of explorers’ lore
the one philosophers felt fell off
and sit there in solitude
with the water bugs and hissing crickets who knew better
Two months shy of my twenty-fifth birthday, my dad passed away. I would be naïve to think that I could sum up the range of emotions in writing, though a lot I’ve heard, read, and seen has resonated with me. There have been happy moments, bittersweet moments, and moments of utter, crushing sadness.
When my dad passed away, people would ask, “How are you?” which has been an incredibly difficult, complex question to answer. A little bit later on, people would remark to me, “You seem fine,” “You’re doing pretty well,” or they would ask, “How are you so okay?” in response to my happiness.
I think the reason I have been able to get up in the morning, to have those happy moments and smile is because, throughout my life, I have faced obstacles that would seem insurmountable.
I’ve had a severe nut allergy my whole life. A handful of times, since a young age, I’ve had allergic reactions and ended up in the hospital. Frankly, I didn’t know if I was going to make it.
I’ve also seen the obstacles in others’ lives, including friends who have been pushed to the brink in experiencing sexual violence and its aftermath or had issues with mental health that have taken an emotional and physical toll, resulting in them being shaken and traumatized by their experiences.
Through all of that, I have yet to lose my smile.
My old coworkers used to joke that I had “resting smile face.” I think about that and I think about the remarks about how I’m doing well. I realize it’s because of three things that have helped me rediscover joy in the face of my grief and adversity in general.
First, gratitude. Shortly after the death of my dad, a very, very wise person said to me, “Often, when someone dies, we ask ourselves, ‘Why did that person die?’ We don’t always ask ourselves, ‘Why did that person live?’” We’re immediately inclined to obsess on this moment of loss—for instance, their illness or the circumstances around their unexpected death. I mean, what can there be to be grateful for in losing someone you love?
I found that losing my dad and experiencing those moments where I wasn’t sure I’d survive helped me more immediately appreciate the time I did have. While I did lose my dad, I also had the privilege of twenty-four years with him. Even when we were physically together, I was able to recognize how valuable my time with him was. I’m thankful for the positive relationship I had with him, for some forewarning before his passing, and that I was able to continue living in line with his wishes to “worry about Matthew.” I’m also grateful that I knew my dad was proud of me (because he would tell me) and also that he was a great man (because I experienced it and others would tell me, and him, even while he was living).
Second, self-care. There are days that are overwhelmingly difficult. As author M. Scott Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.”
I’m thankful for the fact that I can bound from rock to rock, that I can experience Mother Nature, and that I am given the gift of life each day I wake up.
Particularly through my work with survivors of sexual violence in college, I was taught about self-care and I integrate it into my life to this day. Sometimes, that involves enjoying music, spending meaningful time with loved ones, writing, or, on days when I’m especially motivated, going on a pleasant hike by myself and exploring nature. I’m thankful for the fact that I can bound from rock to rock, that I can experience Mother Nature, and that I am given the gift of life each day I wake up. Self-care allows me to process my thoughts and manage my stress in a healthy way. The best part is that you don’t need to be grieving to embrace self-care. In a world laden with stresses, self-care is here to make us better and allow us to navigate our problems effectively.
And third, there’s listening and learning. The most striking way that I listen and learn is through connecting with others. Whether through my career at SecondMuse, where I engage with inspiring people who aim to innovate for good and make our world a better place, or through my personal passion project, the 180º of Impact blog, I find myself neck deep in opportunities to develop an appreciation for and community within my circumstances.
Not only do I learn that I’m not alone, but I come again to a powerful realization: when you know time is limited, it can drive you to live life to the fullest.
While everyone grieves differently, this realization unites a lot of us within this grief community. That understanding, while coming from a place that I wouldn’t wish upon even my worst enemy, is a huge blessing. It empowers me, and countless others, to make the most of every single second. Yes, it’s tough, but it allows me to smile, knowing that I’m making the most of the limited time I’m provided.
Why do I smile? I smile because of the gratitude I’m blessed with, the self-care I was taught, and the chance to listen and learn from people of all walks of life with whom I discover this positive solidarity, even in the face of tragedy.