Grief is something no one fully understands until they experience it firsthand. It is a strong emotion that snakes in and out of your life and seeps into areas that some could not imagine was possible. I became very familiar with the complexity of grief after the passing of my mother, Beth Ann McGruder, on May 21, 2017.
I did not recognize it at first. Being a mental health professional, I am actively aware of the textbook responses to the loss of someone and have assisted individuals with working through their grief responses. Sadness, being withdrawn, and crying are what individuals associate with grief. However, I have found that my grief responses are triggered by happiness, joy, and being content.
When my mother was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, my former boss told me to “prepare to cry like a toddler” when she passed. I took those words and embraced them. Held on to them like a permission slip to do it as needed. What I didn’t realize is that this would be an all too familiar occurrence that I would encounter in a way I never knew was possible.
When it first happened, I was very confused. Why was I feeling this way when everything was going so well? After some time, I discovered the pattern and learned that it occurred around the times I was the happiest, but not necessarily in the moment. I would have a wave of grief flood over me at the end of the day when I had time to reflect on the experience.
I know to some this doesn’t make sense and I did not fully understand it in the beginning as well, but to me, it explains my relationship with my mother perfectly. All of my future plans included her and all her future plans included me. After I got my Master’s degree, we would start a private practice and she would be the office manager. When I planned on moving right before we found out she was sick, I was not leaving her behind. In fact, I was going to set everything up for her to move there the following year after she retired.
Like I said, my future always included her. So, as I move forward in my life and am blessed with many avenues of happiness, both professionally and personally, I would remember that she is not there to move forward with me. She is not there to celebrate our successes.
So, I cried the happier I was. I cried and I embraced it because it is what I needed to do in that moment and it felt good. Grief is a complicated thing. It looks different for everyone, but feels the same at times. It is something that can be all encompassing and cause you to lose focus on what is going well.
Now when I am happy, I rarely cry. For me, once I made the connection, I gave myself permission to work through it and understand that it is okay to move forward without my mom physically there. I know that my ability to work hard, appreciate time spent with others, and to be happy are all things that show she is still with me, moving forward.
To all my people who are grieving in their own way, I want you to know that whatever you are feeling is okay, even if it is confusing and does not fit the textbook definition. Remind yourself that you are not alone and that it is okay to talk about it. It is okay for everything to be going well and still feel sad. Give yourself the opportunity to make those connections, because you may find relief in them. Be patient and seek professional help if you need to.
Janell McGruder is a licensed clinical professional counselor and EMDR therapist. She is owner of McGruder Counseling Services.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.
Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.