Like a shadowy veil, a dark cloud recently settled over my family, and the air was still, and so it sat there, making itself comfortable despite our frustration that it was an unwelcome guest. On one of the darkest days of its visit, we lost a courageous aunt to a short battle with lung cancer, and a few days later, with that cloud still hovering above, we rushed to our beloved grandmother’s bed to hug her one last time, to say farewell. So much sadness. So much loss. So much pain in my heart for my children and my husband and his grieving family.
Now the gloom is lifting, the sky changing from a heavy charcoal to a dusty gray, but the shadow still looms. It hardly seems appropriate to write an essay about happiness. Not now. It just isn't right.
Or maybe it’s perfect.
Grief is far from easy. It is the opposite of easy, actually, far worse than hard. It drills down deep, to the very core of our humanity, and leaves us with gaping hollow spaces that we cannot fill. It is real and it is heavy and it is slow. But this essay is not about healing after loss because those answers are not mine to give. I wish that I could write that essay, I wish that I could throw that lifeline, but I can’t. I don’t have enough experience. Not yet, and hopefully not for a long while.
So this essay isn’t about dying. And it’s not about healing.
It's about living.
It’s about how experiencing loss can remind us to reacquaint ourselves with joy. It’s about how loss knocks down walls and puts everything into a new perspective. It’s about how, in an instant, my schedule and my task lists and my obligations, the homework and the sports games and the housekeeping, my urgent emails and my important messages and my top priorities – my entire life - all of it - can immediately screech to a halt with just one desperate phone call. It’s about how loss reminded me of some things that I knew once but forgot, like:
*Life is short. I want mine to be a happy one.
*I allow a lot of things to steal my happiness, and most of them aren't really that important.
*In the big picture, most things, in general, aren't really that important.
*We make happiness seem much harder to attain than it probably is.
*The greatest happiness comes from appreciating the simplest joys.
I've drawn a few more conclusions from these dark days, too. I want to live a life that overflows with joy because I focus on what matters most. I want to create a home that attracts happiness to our front porch and then invites it in to eat dinner and sit at the table with us. I want to instill an appreciation of the simple things in my children so that they experience peace, even when the air outside is still and dark clouds hang like a heavy curtain at their door.
So here is our starting point, some simple ideas to invite more happiness inside our home, and maybe yours.
1. Establish routines. My family is happier when we are living with some sense of routine. There is comfort in knowing what to expect and when to expect it, and there isn’t as much bickering when certain responsibilities are just a regular part of each day. In addition to our routine, I want to build in family traditions to strengthen our most important relationships. Maybe your family eats lunch with Grandma every Saturday. Maybe you order pizza every Thursday night. Maybe your kids know that you will attend church together every Sunday morning. Maybe you schedule a game night once a month. Routines and traditions matter. What happens when a week makes the normal routines impossible? We can at least make the week predictable by posting our upcoming events and responsibilities where everyone can see. And having a usual routine doesn’t mean that spontaneity is out of the question. An occasional dose of unexpected fun sounds like happiness to me!
2. Fill your house with the stuff that makes you happy. I want my house to be a home full of memories – both because we make them and because we preserve them. Photographs of the people I love? Everywhere. Mementos from important events or memorable places? YES, please! Meaningful gifts from friends and loved ones? Absolutely. That’s why there is a jar of sand and shells on the book shelf and a coil pot that my son made on the end table. I don’t buy a lot of decorations, but I have been known to buy something once in a while just because looking at it made me happy, and I haven’t regretted those purchases. You can always find a spot for the happy things. Everywhere I look, I want to see the things that connect me to special people, special experiences, and special memories. That is happiness to me!
3. Know your triggers. Having a sparkling clean house is not that important to me, and that is a good thing because I just don't have enough time in a day. I don’t like my space to be messy, but I try not to stress about how long it's been since the last thorough cleaning because the answer is always “TOO LONG.” At the same time, if we are going to be happy at home, we need to acknowledge our triggers, the messes that inevitably cause our blood pressures to rise. For example, there are a lot of messes that I can handle, like a counter with a big stack of papers and mail, but dirty laundry on the floor drives me just a little bit crazy. That laundry pops my happiness balloon every time. (It shouldn’t. It’s not that important. But it does.) My husband, on the other hand, can walk right past the laundry without noticing, but if the kitchen counter is a mess, he can't stand it. Neither of us wants to be stressed out at home, and neither of us expects everything to be perfect, but both of us have triggers, those little messes that just get on our nerves. We know what those are, and we will have a happier home if we concentrate on addressing those instead of worrying about scrubbing the entire house every single week. Because that will never happen.
4. Laugh more. Do whatever it takes to make this happen. Board games. Jokes. Playful banter. Whip and Nae Nae. Funny movies. YouTube videos. Shared memories. Old photos. Be happier. Laugh more. (And when you aren't laughing, smile more, too!)
5. Say “I love you.” Say it often. If you aren’t comfortable saying it, get comfortable. If you already say it regularly, say it more. In the last days, people say it, and they say it a lot. That’s because it is important to tell people how you feel. It gives you peace. It strengthens relationships. It makes you happy.
6. Be nice. My kids have a tendency to use a tone with me that does not convey how much I know they really love me. Sometimes I say, “I know that you would NOT talk to your teacher at school that way, and you may not use that tone at home, either.” Sure, it's normal behavior. That doesn't mean that it isn't hurtful at times. But here's what I don't like to admit . . . My kids aren’t the only ones who are guilty. I know that I've talked to my husband with an attitude that I would not use with my friends and most definitely not with my co-workers. And one day, when I was at the very end of my rope with my children, I thought, “What if I were on a reality show and this was being filmed right now? What if other people would hear what I am saying and how I'm saying it?” Let's just say that I wouldn’t have been proud. How can my family experience happiness if we choose to take all of our frustrations out on one another? Our goal: Take some deep breaths, and make a conscious decision to be nice, especially to the people whom you love the most.
7. Help others. Planting a seed of kindness somewhere else and watching it grow is the best way to bring more joy into your own home. Even if YOUR heart is hurting, helping someone else may be the spoonful of sugar that you need to give you a sweeter outlook on your own situation. Look around you. Your friends have needs. Your neighbors have needs. People that you don’t know in your community and at your church have needs. Fill someone else’s needs by sending an encouraging note, sharing a hot casserole, offering to babysit, listening, giving a hug, dropping by with a sweet surprise, mowing the lawn - WHATEVER might bring that person joy. Here is a beautiful truth: You can't give joy to someone else without getting it all over yourself, too.
8. Don’t just DO things. EXPERIENCE things. It seems to me that when people are facing their final days, they don’t just DO things. They TREASURE experiences. They don’t just eat a strawberry or a piece of cake. They SAVOR it. They don’t just offhandedly reply to a visitor. They INVEST in the conversation. They don’t just observe a sunset. They SOAK UP the beauty. At the very time when logic says to hurry and experience as much as possible, they slow down and cherish every minute. The lesson? Enjoy the simple things – the sweetness of a piece of pie, the comfort of a hug from a friend, the love of your pet, the beauty of a rainbow, the power of a clap of thunder, the coolness of a summer breeze, the warmth of cuddling with your kids. We need to slow down and find joy in the small stuff. It turns out that it's really the big stuff.
9. Give people space. Spending time together is important, REALLY important, but spending time alone is important, too. We all need a different amount of social and personal time, and it’s important to respect those individual needs so that everyone can find a joyful balance. One of my kids is a social butterfly; he wants someone’s attention all the time. My other son needs more time to be alone, and that’s okay. If his energy for social interaction is depleted and he can’t recharge by himself, he isn’t happy. Sometimes my husband needs space. Sometimes I need time to read a book or exercise or write or just escape for an hour or two. No one should feel guilty for needing some time to just BE. We need balance to be happy, and I can't expect their happiness ratio to be exactly like mine.
10. Be grateful. The happiest people that I know are grateful and humble people. Whether they are comfortable in life or struggling, they seem content with what they have. They always seem to feel surprised and undeserving when good things come their way. Why? Because their vision is focused on what they HAVE when others concentrate only on what they WISH they had. When you talk to them, they express gratitude for the things that matter most in life – their faith, their friends, and their family. They reflect on their blessings often and thank God for them. Gratitude is a key to happiness. Honestly, I’m not sure that we can be happy without it.
Loss is a part of life, and it is certainly one of the saddest, most difficult parts. But, if nothing else, it does remind us to keep living, to make every day count, to stop wasting time with feelings of discontent and to start making the choice to live joyfully. This is no fail-proof plan to achieve happiness, but it’s a start for my family, and maybe for yours. And I may be wrong, but somehow I feel that our loved ones, looking down on us with a bird’s-eye view from above, would approve.
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/9198432@N02/6101296095">smiley face stress ball</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>