When Sorrow Amplifies Joy

A former therapist and coach told me once that grief can feel pleasurable in an unexpected way because every other emotion is heightened. You’re sad but also recognizing the transience of life and because of that transience, strawberries taste sweeter and time with loved ones is more precious. When he said this to me, I told him he was off his rocker because there was nothing pleasurable about grief but now I see what he meant.

We’re theoretically in the “happiest time of the year,” but against the backdrop of the holidays with the sparkly lights, sappy movies, and festivities, I’m sad. I’m grieving the loss of people I knew well and people that I didn’t. In the background, there’s a refrain that so-and-so isn’t here anymore and so every moment becomes more precious because I know in my bones that tomorrow isn’t promised. Grief shakes me from the dream where I think I know how anything will play out. I don’t. I really, really don’t.

My former therapist is right. My heart, it hurts. It’s squeezing in my chest and feels tender and fragile. And yet, because of the pain, there’s also more pleasure because when I come across delightful things, they are more delightful. A father and daughter were on the same Bart train as me to the airport, and then on the same flight to Seattle, and then they also took the Seattle light rail and sat next to me on that train. I watched the daughter swinging from the rail above her head as if it were monkey bars and smiled.

man in front of a window

Darkness and light are paired together. Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

I look at the birds nibbling seed from the feeder outside my parents’ window and say, “Wow. You’re so beautiful.” The sun seems to shine brighter, flower colors are more vibrant, and everything is amplified right now because death is also so present. I’m hugging my parents a little tighter, a little longer, aware that our time together is limited.

Rashani Réa speaks to this in her poem, “The Unbroken:”

There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
a shatteredness
out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength.

There is a hollow space
too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness
we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole,
while learning to sing.

I didn’t think it was possible, but sorrow is amplifying joy because the dial has been turned up in my life. I’m just as likely to burst into tears as I am to burst out laughing. I feel a little unhinged, a little uncontained because I am. Something has been broken open and at the moment I am painfully, exquisitely alive.

I dream of a world where we hold our grief and our joy with tenderness. A world where we recognize sometimes sorrow leads to joy because we’re aware of how fleeting everything is. A world where we absorb the preciousness of where we are right here, right now because we recognize this, too, shall pass.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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