Why Joy Can Feel Strange When We Grieve

So, you caught yourself having a good day, huh? Did you immediately think, “I’m grieving, how is this possible?” Or maybe you felt guilty for enjoying something or smiling when someone you care about has died. Here’s something you may not hear often, but I want you to take it in, remember it, and possibly share it with your child(ren) if they’re grieving too: It’s okay to smile. It’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to enjoy what life brings your way. 

You may be thinking if it’s okay, then why do I feel so guilty?

Most of us have been conditioned to believe that grief looks, feels, and affects us all the same. That’s certainly what we hear at our grief camps for youth. We are taught that grief is expressed by looking sad or angry all the time, and this idea may have been modeled to us by people we know, and/or have seen on TV shows and in movies. Rarely do we see grieving characters crack jokes, smile, be silly or feel good at all. So of course it might seem wrong or strange to feel happiness seep in!

When our grief looks different from what we were taught it should look like, we tend to feel guilty that we are not meeting society’s standards. We now have the stress of not acting how we’re “supposed to” during grief and we worry that when we smile it might somehow convey to others that we’re okay or mean that we’re not grieving anymore. How can one grieve when they are smiling

Allow yourself the whole range of emotions

Yes, we’ll sure feel sad, angry, lost, confused, and/or many other ways that we typically associate with grief. However, we may also feel happy, a sense of relief, or even simply content. Maybe looking at pictures of your person brings you joy, or hearing a song you love, or doing something that the two of you used to enjoy doing together. Feeling happiness after someone dies doesn’t mean you’re not grieving properly. Nor does it mean that your grief has ended or that you don’t miss or care about your person or that you’ve moved on. Plus, trying to suppress the feeling of joy will likely cause you discomfort that can affect you physically, mentally, socially, spiritually, and/or emotionally.

So give yourself permission to feel whatever emotions arise, including positive ones. It’s okay to feel good and to recognize that you are experiencing an emotion that may have been suppressed for a really long time. Allow yourself to process the emotion by feeling it fully and/or doing something that helps you work through it: writing, drawing, taking a walk, screaming, getting some rest, spending time with someone you care about, playing a sport, cooking or baking, singing, playing a game, watching TV, etc.  Remind yourself as often as you need that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Do what works best for you. 

You may even choose to celebrate reconnecting with positive feelings that you haven’t felt in a long time (oh, hello, happiness!). Soak in that feeling, allow it to move through you, and wrap around your body. It’s been a long time coming, and you are worthy of every single enjoyable moment. 

Brie Overton, FT, LPC, NCC, is the Chief Clinical Officer at Experience Camps. She is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri – St. Louis in the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy, where she educates and supervises master and doctoral level students on grief-specific issues in counseling. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and specializes in anticipatory loss, grief and bereavement, life transitions, and working with underserved populations. She is a member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling and has worked as a clinician and Clinical Director for Experience Camps since 2016.