The Rise and Fall of Joy

There’s a bipolar aspect to grief that isn’t often talked about in mainstream circles. And while the term “Waves” is often used when describing grief, exhaustively availed in metaphor — (waves of grief crash…, the rising tide of longing…, smashed in the surf of…) — one rarely gets the most prevalent similarity to “waves”; the rising, falling, repetitive nature of grief.

I’ve come to realize over the past nearly 9 months that when one is said to have recovered from grief or is even just doing better than before, it’s less a matter of “getting over a loss” than it is being numbed from the constant surge and retreat of grief. It’s fucking exhausting.

Diane Shelton at Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington DC, May 2017

This phenomenon also explains the vast number of bitter widows and widowers. Joy comes when you express your love to the one you lost. That is also precisely the moment the pain arrives. And so to get on with the business of the day, often completely unconsciously, the grieving soul stops reaching out to the lost love.

And while this subliminal, possibly automatic response works well in the pursuit of “getting on with” the business of the average day, it also serves to suck away any possibility of joy.

This can be demonstrated simply by a moment when joy sneaks up on you. It happens often to me, but yesterday is the most recent example. Diane and I had talked many times about driving cross-country and, among other things, spending the night in the desert.

This activity would require modifications to our Subaru, first and foremost, switching from smooth-running highway tires to All-Terrain tires. I did that yesterday as I’m still planning on taking the trip we dreamed about for so long.

I was excited about the upgrade and as I drove into the driveway after the tires were installed I found myself anxious to get out of the car and run inside, a smile on my face.

I opened the front door and looked first at the fiber-room/office where Diane spent most of her time, and then up the stairs to our bedroom. It was then that I realized the joy I felt was because I had unconsciously been excited to share the news with my girl… my wife who was no longer in those places.

Like the proverbial mouthful of ash, my joy died on the spot and I disappeared up the stairs, closed the door, and cried. It was the first time I’d been hit like that in more than a month.

In the following 20 hours, I’ve ached for her touch, her voice, her warmth, or even just her presence in my space. I’ve felt broken and hollow again like I haven’t for a while. I’d unknowingly slipped into the comfort of routine to get stuff done…the numbness, now evaporated by a fresh “wave” of grief.

But, mixed with that painful longing is the bitter-sweet tinge of love. because my ache for her is just that, loving unreturned… unreturned on this plane anyway.

Hope arrives for me when I feel like that because I’ve noticed I find her in vivid dreams more frequently when I’m hurting that way. I hope she comes again tonight. Seeing her in my dreams is by far the greatest joy of my life since she passed.

S.L. and Diane Shelton portrait by daughter Lauren, Summer 2010

I have no doubt the suffering will push me back to my numbness eventually. It’s happened dozens of times over the past 9 months. I’d like to get to someplace where I can balance the love and the grief, but that’s just not how it works. When you feel love and longing for your lost partner you are instantly reminded it can’t be returned the way it needs to be to make you feel whole.

So, while the numbness might steal your joy, it’s also the only break you get from the pain. My hope is that I don’t become one of those angry, bitter, reclusive widowers who is never any good to anyone ever again. But I already see it happening in small ways.

But the greatest fear I have of the numbness is the separation. Yes, expressed love for a lost mate can cause so much pain, but it is still expressed love and the closest we feel to those who were the greatest joy in our lives.

So here’s to the pain— and the joy buried within. May the numbness never snuff it out completely.

2 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Joy

  1. I’m so very sorry for your loss. While that storm rages within and you feel it will never end, the waves will eventually ease and one day the gentle lap of sweet memories will bring a smile and thoughts of your beautiful lady. Stay strong my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

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