Planning Joyful Moments While Grieving (Even When We Don’t Want to)

I am no stranger to grief. I experienced the death of my father who died from a car accident when I was in my twenties. My mother died more recently from a rare chronic lung illness. As part of my work at Experience Camps, I spend a large portion of my time listening to deep feelings and stories of children who experienced the death of a family member. Holding all this grief–my own and that of young people–can definitely be hard. However, I’ve also learned rich and valuable lessons, including how helpful it is to intentionally weave in joy during dark times.

This month, my 18-year-old daughter, Risa, was hiking at college, slipped on icy rocks, and broke her ankle. I drove to the campus immediately to bring her home, where she had to elevate her foot for six straight days in order to bring down the swelling so doctors could perform surgery. It was a bad week. She’s home now, recovering in a cast and waiting for next steps from her doctor. While we’re thankful there’s not been much physical pain, there has been plenty of frustration, worry, and FOMO on her part.

Risa getting a manicure to boost her spirits (and her nail game)

During one particularly rough morning for both Risa and me, I remembered my mother teaching me after my father died that whenever possible, we should cultivate joy during rough times—even when we’re exhausted and don’t feel like it. Especially then. 

Bring in the joy

Planning small feel-good experiences creates some life balance, gives us a short break from the heartache, and reminds our brains that good things happen. There’s no “right” experience. The joy could be booking a massage or a haircut. It doesn’t need to cost money, however, or even entail leaving our house. It could be playing with the neighbor’s dog or making cupcakes while listening to our favorite music or watching a comedy or going outside and lifting our face to the sun.

My colleague Brie Overton, Chief Clinical Officer at Experience Camps, got it right when she said: “These kinds of experiences give us a little time to step away from the hardship, and it’s a great idea to schedule them into our calendar so we can also see we have good things to look forward to when times are hard.”


Last week, I found a nail salon for Risa that would accommodate her current needs and booked her a manicure. It meant navigating the hassles of getting her into the car, driving way too slow so the bumps in the road didn’t cause pain, getting her into the salon with crutches, and finding ways to prop up her leg. It would have been far easier to skip it and stay home.

It’s worth the extra effort

The hassles were worth it. For a couple of hours, my girl got to be out of the house and pampered. She got to stop thinking about her ankle and all the nuisances that need sorting through this semester. The colorful pattern she had painted on her nails brings her delight, and even helped her turn a small healing corner. The manicure didn’t fix anything; it just reminded her that genuine smiles can be moments away.

The hardship of breaking a bone is nothing at all compared to the grief of having a family member die. The point here is only that I feel grateful to be able to draw upon my times of grief and pull out helpful lessons that help me better cope with frustrations and disappointment. 

If you are grieving right now, I implore you to book happy moments into your calendar right now. They’re not meant to be a reward for making it through the hard times; they are a gift we can give ourselves because we are in hard times. And if you need someone to give you permission, I’m offering it to you. So get planning and enjoy.

Michelle Cove is the Director of Communications at Experience Camps. She founded the nonprofit MEDIAGIRLS. She is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, journalist, and national bestselling author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.