The Grief of Joy: When Feelings of Loss Accompany Happy Transitions

LS020658We are familiar with the grief associated with death. Denial, anger, and acceptance are part of the grieving process as it pertains to death. But what about grief that is unconnected to death? What about the loss and grief that occurs with expected and even happy events?

A few years ago, at a friend’s wedding, I was surprised to find her mother sobbing in the restroom. She was happy for her daughter and liked her son-in-law, but she was pained by the loss of her daughter. She was grieving the transition of her relationship with her daughter, who was no longer fully hers. Her daughter’s primary relationship was now the one she shared with her new husband. While her mother did celebrate and have joy for her daughter, she also had sorrow and grief for her own loss and transition. But she had no place to put her grief.

Marriage and partnerships, moving, new jobs, and graduations are often joyous occasions that we readily share and celebrate with others. We have traditions associated with these transitions in life. There are weddings and housewarming parties and happy hours organized to commemorate these events. But there aren’t any traditions or processes to acknowledge and assist with the natural grief and loss that comes along with these occasions and transitions.

As it does following the death of a loved one, grief during joyous occasions impacts all aspects of your life and of you. As a society, we have great traditions and markers of change, but we do not have ways to encourage and support people after the actual transition. What happens after the wedding ceremony or six months into the new job? What do you do with your sadness and grief about what you have lost even while you are happy or satisfied with what you have?

First, acknowledge the complexity of the situation. Identify the bittersweet emotions of enjoying your new job while simultaneously missing your old one. Grief is not solely comprised of pain. For example, even during the most tragic deaths there can be moments of joy and laughter during the funeral service. This speaks to the varied emotions associated with grief, the mix of pain with moments of pleasures.

Also, remember that grief is fluid and changes with time. The way you feel at the beginning point of change is different than in the following month, in six months, or years later. Your feelings of sadness, pain, fear, and loss transform and become less gripping and more integrated into you and your life. The grief and feelings of loss can recede over time.

One of the ways people get stuck in their grief—meaning it is unchanged and unmoving—is when they have no place to express it. Silent grief makes the process of grieving much worse. Being able to talk about the grief not only eases the pain but moves the process forward. Talking about and sharing the grief makes it possible to be sad but not stagnant.

Whenever you are in the midst of change and transition, consider what you are losing as well as what you are gaining. This is not to focus on the unpleasant or negative aspects of change, but rather to be more prepared when the inevitable feelings of loss and grief rise for you.

How do you navigate the intersection and bitter sweetness of joy and grief? How do you celebrate the newness while also recognizing and honoring what passed?

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  • Steven

    October 22nd, 2013 at 10:43 AM

    I kind of felt all of this recently when I got a promotion at my job. I was so happy because this was something that I worked hard for for a long time but I was sad too because I would be working with all new people and in some ways it felt like I would be leaving all my old cowrokers behind.

    These were people who have known me for a long time and who have supported my career and how could I just leave them? Those were things that I felt even though I knew that they all wanted the best for me. So changes like this, even though you know they are going to mean better things for you in the future, they are still hard to work through.

  • michael

    October 23rd, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    I have also had times when I felt genuinely happy about some new change until it seems like there were other people who truly would try to sabotage this happiness for me. And these were people who I thought would only want the ebst for me! These are the times when you really do learn who your real friends are and who the ones are who are only in it for themselves.

  • Cecile

    October 25th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    This might be a little off target but when my mom died, i know obviously a sad thing, I also thought about it as a good thing because she had suffered from her illness for so long and really she was ready and I think that the whole family was ready too. But there was still this overwhelming sense of grief and sadness that came with the loss too, like we wnated her to be back even though we were all fully aware of how she had hurt. So how was that fair to any of us or to her? It wasn’t except that we missed her so I think that all of these feelings and emotions are natural.

  • Tonya Ladipo

    November 3rd, 2013 at 5:57 PM

    We definitely experience grief with death. But I agree that death can be complicated as it can be joyous and sad. Sometimes an ending (death) is welcome after a long illness or life though it can be difficult for those who remain.

    Michael raises an interesting point, what do we do when others aren’t happy or supportive of our transitions? What do you do when you don’t get support from those you expect it from the most?

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