When we fled to Florida over spring break of last year, I purchased Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project on my Kindle and read it while lounging by the pool.
I read it with a particular kind of skepticism, because I knew happiness was no longer in the cards for me. I was still seeking survival. I wanted to be able to breathe without it hurting so goddamn much. I wanted to be able to exist in my own skin, to get away from this place where I was either crying because I was alive and my daughter was dead, or I was temporarily distracted by something meaningless and inane--a television show, a magazine, work that had to be done. These things didn't matter to me, but they were a blessed relief because at least they forced my mind to focus on something besides my own dismal existence.
So I read The Happiness Project thinking that even if I could never be happy again, at least I could be happier than I was. I mean, I couldn't possibly be sadder. There was really no where to go but up. The only problem was, for the last three months, I hadn't had the energy for anything but the minimal level of functioning. I could do the laundry but not the cooking. I could get myself to campus to teach freshman composition three days a week, but often I simply moved from the bed to the couch on the other two days. I showered on a regular basis. I made myself eat because I knew I needed to be healthy if I wanted to get pregnant again. The only socializing I did was seeing my acupuncturist and my therapist (yes, I realize this does not count as socializing). Each night, I waited for David to get home from work so I could curl up next to him on the couch. Those moments, with his arms around me, and Cooper's weight pressed against me, and the TV providing a mental escape were the only times I felt like I could breathe, but even then the sadness was a vacuum inside me and I felt so empty.
There was no way for me to make sense of what had happened to Eliza. It did not fit into the story I had of my life, and I was so angry that I had to rewrite my narrative, that instead of having my daughter in it, it was filled with this ugly grief that made me feel misshapen and malformed and forever incomplete. I couldn't wish it away or reason it away or meditate it away or pray it away. I was too broken for any of that. I turned to books--books that were helpful, books that were thoughtful, books that were comforting.
But for all the light that C.S. Lewis and Harold Kushner could shed on The Problem of Pain and When Bad Things Happen to Good People, their metaphysical answers were (and maybe still are) beyond the scope of my suffering. I was desperate to understand what had happened to us, but I just couldn't figure out how to make any kind of sense of this in a way that would let me move forward. It was exhausting. It was just my brain running in circles, and it always ended with me sobbing and begging the universe for my baby. Seeking answers was getting me no where. There was no answer that I'd find satisfying, unless it was one that put Eliza back in my arms. I finally decided that I needed to stop looking for answers.
Instead, I sought small, concrete things I could do that would give me the semblance of control in a life that had fallen to pieces around me. I needed specific instructions: What can I do to feel anything but this hollow sadness?
The first flicker of distraction came with the decision to redecorate the living room (perhaps because I was now spending so many hours there, in front of HGTV). I found myself channeling my brain to think about paint colors and window treatments before falling asleep, because those subjects were safe and--dare I say?--enjoyable.
When I started Rubin's book, I was still at such a low place in my grief. I knew that a project like this was not the key to happiness. But I hoped that it would offer me a guideline to feel marginally better. A goal that I could set and achieve.
As I read, I remember that certain moments were surprisingly painful--first of all, Rubin happens to have a daughter. Named Eliza. Also there was a chapter on parenting that I skipped.
But other parts of the book had me nodding thoughtfully. I remember feeling particularly grateful for my marriage and the dynamic that David and I have. I recognized in her some of my own tendencies--especially a desire for "gold stars," or for people to recognize and praise my efforts (probably why I was a student for so many years--it suits my personality!). I also appreciated the way she was slightly self-effacing, acknowledging that she was not particularly unhappy, but she simply thought she could do more to maximize her happiness. Here I was, as dreadfully unhappy as possible--grieving, depressed, anxious, distraught--and I simply wanted to minimize those feelings as much as possible.
I definitely did not feel like I could tackle goals one month at a time (I was still in barely-functioning mode), but the book helped me decide to go back to taking yoga classes, to make sure I was giving David proofs of love since he was giving me so much support, and to try to find one small thing to look forward to each week (even if it was just Chinese take out and Netflix).
When we were in Mexico over Christmas, I was reading on my Kindle and after finishing The Marriage Plot, I wasn't quite ready to dive into another big novel. So, once again poolside, I clicked over to The Happiness Project and started skimming through it again. I was so shocked to realize that I'd taken more out of the book than I realized. It wasn't as much about maximizing happiness as it was coming up for air after the most devastating event of my life, but the strategies still worked. I was on a different timeline, as it had taken me a few more months before I had the energy to try something new, to be a good friend, to "Be Brooke" (I was still trying to remember who that was).
It got me thinking about the earliest days of grief when everything feels so desperately scary, and then the early months when life is covered in a brown haze of sadness, and then the middle-of-the-year months, when you think that you should be feeling better than you actually are, while at the same time you feel guilty anytime you do feel better. The advice I so often got from books about grief, and from other people who had been through this gut-wrenching process was to take things moment by moment, to just breathe through the day, to give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you're feeling, and assurances that it would eventually get easier. This is brilliant and perfect advice that I much needed to hear.
But I also wanted more definite direction, not just a promise that it would get better. I wanted someone to tell me how to make it better. Even just for a moment. How could I feel better in the depths of all this loss?
I'm still trying to figure this out, and I'm still strategizing how a project like this could work. I want to emphasize that this is NOT a "make lemonade out of lemons" situation. This is advice like "Keep in mind that sipping hot tea can prevent you from crying because the warmth relaxes your throat." But I want to figure out a way to present--in retrospect, because I wasn't always fully aware that I was doing it at the time--coping mechanisms that got me through the year after I lost my daughter. And as I do this, I would absolutely love to hear ways that you survived and found your way back to pockets of happiness? A level of existing that wasn't absolutely painful?
I hear occasionally from people who are so fresh from their loss and it just takes my breath away to remember where I was a year ago, not quite three months out from Eliza's birth and death, and not knowing how my life would ever be a place that I would want to inhabit again. So I want to try to present really specific advice about things I did that helped, and of course hearing other perspectives would undoubtedly be useful since I'm assuming that what worked for me won't necessarily work for everybody. So I'm brainstorming a name for this, and I'm thinking for now it will just be another page on this blog (a tab at the top) that will serve as a record for me (the original purpose of this blog) and maybe a resource for others who stumble this way.
Some things I'd like to know... Does this sound ridiculous? What's a word I can use besides "happiness" that speaks to the place we get to after surviving a tragic loss? Is it worth discussing something like happiness when it seems so superficial in the face of the death of a child (or any major loss/personal disaster, for that matter)? Would you have wanted to find something like this in the early days, or would it have just been too overwhelming? (I'm not sure anything I read before I was four months out actually registered with me--I was so numb).
I don't want to make light of the grief journey, or to suggest that you'll feel better about the death of your baby if you just take a yoga class and reread the Harry Potter series. I just want to explain how I survived the first year and even managed to find a few moments in it that weren't totally and completely bleak. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, but I imagine I'll plunge forward with it even if you think it's a crazy waste of time, because now I'm interested in trying to document for myself how I managed that--mostly because there are days when I DON'T feel like I'm coping very well at all, and it would help me to know that I've found my way out of that darkness before and I can probably do it again...