Every year the messages come in:
How do I deal with my parents who don't seem to care about the fact that I'm not the same since my baby died?
The holidays are the worst time of year for me but I always feel like I have to put on a happy face to please everyone else. How do I deal with this?
My brother dis-invited me to Christmas because I've been too much of a downer since my cancer came back. I feel so alone and don't know what to do.
These messages are heartbreaking, but they all carry a similar theme:
I'm in so much pain but I feel like I have to be happy, especially during the holidays. Help!
One of the terrors of grieving is that you still have to live when your life is no longer what it was. You are forced to confront those around you while you're submerged in a world that's been turned upside down. Life goes on whether you want it to or not, and when your world has been shattered, your dealings with others seem to take on a heightened intensity.
The holidays exacerbate these feelings, as the ridiculous assumption that you must buck up, smile, and be happy throughout the season is monstrous and everywhere. The implication is that your heart must be swelled with gratitude and joy while you sing carols and eat chocolate reindeer. It's a delusional, devastating narrative, but it's what we face year after year after year.
In other words, “happiness” reigns supreme. You must appear happy at all costs. For starters, "happiness" in this context is never really defined, and it's usually confused with pleasure or material success or positivity, all of which are most definitely not the same as happiness. But even if we put aside definitions and ignore the fact that extensive psychological research shows that trying to be happy doesn't work, we need to pay attention to the larger narrative:
Grieving is bad. Suffering is weak. Loss is "negative" and should be suppressed at all costs.
The pressure to withdraw from these "negative" experiences is so strong we end up looking for a savior to fix everything. That savior is happiness.
Let's call bullshit on that myth once and for all.
To be clear, no, you don’t have to be happy during the holidays. In fact you never "have" to be happy. Assuming you “have” to be anything implies that it’s not optional. At that point you become mired in just another story that is not your own--a mechanism of control that’s so subtle its power is almost shielded from you until it’s too late. As soon as your agency is robbed of its ability to make decisions, you're screwed. You're no longer living your life.
How the hell are you supposed to grieve or battle your adversity if you're not really living your life?
If you’re grieving a loved one or facing any sort of devastation at the moment, you’d better not try to be happy. If the people in your life don’t understand that, they better be ok feeling uncomfortable. If they’re not ok being uncomfortable, then let me be clear:
Fuck their feelings.
Yes, you heard that right. Fuck their feelings.
Before you freak out about coming across as "mean", understand that those who base how they value you according to a shallow criteria that emphasizes how good you make them feel are probably not as supportive of you as you might think. Furthermore, ignoring someone's distaste of your pain is not the same as hating them. It's merely an exercise in self-respect and setting healthy boundaries.
As soon as you let another person’s feelings about what you're going through dictate how you choose to show up in life, you've completely surrendered your power. You have no business giving your power away, especially when you've been devastated by loss.
You don't rise to the occasion and overcome your adversity by pleasing other people. Ever. You'd think this would be obvious, but it's what we do all the time. No one ever said "my son died but I'm going to get through it by smiling and making sure everyone else thinks I look great in my sexy red dress while I pretend that everything is awesome!" It sounds preposterous when it's spelled out like that, but it's what we do all the time.
Rather, you kill your adversity's control over you by being in it, by facing it, and by choosing to live anyway. This will mean that you don't appear "happy" sometimes. And guess what? That's not only ok, it's essential. The goal is never to "beat" your losses by pretending to be free of pain when pain is the most normal companion at this point in your journey. That's lunacy. The goal is to weave a new mosaic for yourself in light of all you've endured. This is a journey with many winding roads, and some of those roads will be anything but happy pilgrimages. To say otherwise is to cease being human.
Your job is not to make everyone else feel good about themselves, especially if you’re currently mired in grief or reeling from tragedy or terrorized by the worst adversity you’ve ever experienced.
Rather, your job is much, much more important. Your job is to grieve. Remember, grieving isn't this sort of passive act where you just wallow away. Grieving is active and intentional. Grieving requires that you show up and live while you wade through the shit you're going through. It's the process of standing up, day after day after day, especially when you don't want to. If you find yourself in good spirits along the way, great. But that is not and should not ever be the goal.
There is nothing--and I mean nothing--wrong with you if you don't feel happy or positive or singy-songy this time of year. You're not inadequate for grieving. In fact, if anything you'd be less than human if you didn't grieve your losses.
Don't force yourself to be happy. The holiday happiness mask is one of the most exhausting displays of bullshit our culture so blindly buys into, no matter how damaging. And it must end once and for all. You can choose to end this narrative's dominance over your life right now. It isn't easy to do, no. You'll face horrific resistance from some people. Others will fade away.
Yet some will honor your pain and fight like hell to stand with you. Cherish them and be with them in return, for their presence is a gift that will echo throughout the rest of your life. Know that by asserting your freedom from the happiness mask, you will immediately begin to reestablish your inner agency. This won't make everything better, but it will equip you to live well even when life is falling apart. You'll rediscover the tools you need to stand and face the reality of life, no matter how monstrous. And ironically, you'll find yourself most equipped to take the first steps towards that most elusive of concepts: happiness.
It just may be the case that rebelling against the tyranny of happiness is what will set you free.
Let your rebellion begin now.