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Experiencing Loss Can Make Celebrating Other People’s Joy Incredibly Painful

Since Jamie died, I’ve tried to protect myself by limiting my exposure to others’ happy life events.

by Katie Hawkins-Gaar
Nov 16 2018, 4:02pm

Dmitry Schemelev/Unsplash

This essay was first published in My Sweet Dumb Brain, a newsletter written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. Her husband, Jamie, collapsed and died while running a half marathon in February 2017. He was 32, and had a rare, undiagnosed heart condition. Hawkins-Gaar started My Sweet Dumb Brain as a way to help process the emotions she was experiencing. You can read past issues here.

This is a big week for people I love. My cousin, Sarah, is getting married. My dear friend Becca will give birth to her second child any day now. Some friends are celebrating wedding anniversaries, while others are announcing promotions.

I’ll attend Sarah’s wedding—the second wedding I’ve braved since becoming a widow. I’ll wish that I was there in person to welcome Becca’s baby into the world. And I’ll join in the chorus of congratulations on social media for my married and working friends. But none of those things will feel especially natural or easy.

It seems every week I know someone who’s celebrating a new job, someone who’s announcing an engagement, and someone else having a baby—so goes life when you’re in your 30s. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve been the Friend with Nothing to Celebrate for the past 20 months. When my anxious brain gets going, I can easily convince myself that I’m quickly running out of days to become a parent, to advance in my career, to get married (again). What’s worse is that those anxious thoughts make celebrating everyone else’s joys feel like a burden.

Since Jamie died, I’ve tried to protect myself and my aching heart by limiting my exposure to others’ happy life events. But I can’t always predict when those moments will happen, and it’s impossible and unhealthy to avoid them forever.

When Becca told me she was pregnant, I burst into tears. I later apologized and expressed my joy, but it was not my finest moment. I promptly RSVP’d “no” to every wedding invite I got last year. I knew skipping out on weddings was the right thing to do for my mental health, but I still regret missing out on witnessing some of my favorite people tie the knot. And nearly all of the celebratory posts I see on social media are accompanied by the thought, “Why them? Why not me?”

It’s an ugly and bitter thought pattern, and it’s one I’m tired of.

I wasn’t always this way. I loved celebrating others’ successes. I prided myself on delivering especially good pep talks for friends who needed them. I traded “I’m jealous” for “I’m excited for you,” and I meant it. But lately I’ve discovered that finding happiness for others when you’re unhappy with your own life is a daunting task.

In the months after Jamie died, I kept a journal to capture my jumbled thoughts and emotions. On March 5, 2017—one month and one day after his death—I wrote about seeing a happy, young family near the volleyball courts where I was playing. Jamie and I were planning to adopt a child, and it was the main thing we talked about in the weeks and months before he died. We called our future daughter, “Pearl,” and referenced that name so much that close friends also picked up the habit.

Seeing that happy family reminded me of the family that Jamie and I never got to create. I dissolved into tears, abruptly leaving my volleyball match. Later that night, I wrote about the experience.

“Just a week before Jamie died, we recorded this sort of awkward but ridiculously sweet footage for our adoption video. It’s hard for me to watch, but I’m glad to have it,” I wrote.

“Now, it’s just me. No Jamie. No Pearl. It’s me and my dog Henry and a loneliness that’s suffocating at times. My life has imploded.

I’m not even sure what I want from the future, or if my heart is strong enough to love anyone that much again. But I do know that I don’t want to be filled with sadness when I see families like the one on the volleyball courts. I don’t want to feel bitter when I see my friends share yet another happy family moment on Facebook. I don’t want to be suffocated by this loneliness.”

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Photo courtesy of Katie Hawkins-Gaar

These days, I thankfully don’t burst into tears when I see happy families. But feeling happiness for others—not immediately turning someone else’s success into my personal failure—is still something I battle with.

I was reluctant to write this essay; this struggle is an embarrassing one to admit. Envy and bitterness are ugly qualities, ones that few people want to own up to. And this feels deeper, or at least more complicated, than that. It’s not just that I’m envious of other people’s happiness—it’s that I feel like I’ve done something wrong to not deserve my own happy moments.

I recently finished reading Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, which was co-authored by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and psychologist Adam Grant in the wake of Sandberg’s husband’s sudden death. Towards the beginning of the book, they identify three “Ps” that can stunt recovery from a traumatic experience:

Personalization: the belief that we are at fault
Pervasiveness: the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life
Permanence: the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever

When I turn other people’s joys into my failures, I’m personalizing my trauma. I’m also giving it pervasiveness and permanence by telling myself that I’m not worthy of happiness, that I’ll never become a parent or get married again, that I’ll always be just as stuck as I feel right now.

This is deeper than jealousy. I suspect there’s always something deeper underneath the jealousy we feel from time to time. I don’t have the answers yet (will I ever?) but I have figured out a few things that help my sweet dumb brain when it views a friend’s happy moment as another personal shortfall. Staying off social media, or at least limiting my exposure to the unrelenting News Feed, helps a lot. Keeping a gratitude journal or setting aside time to write thank you cards encourage me to feel more appreciative and grounded. And simply reminding myself that everything is temporary, my sadness and others’ happiness included, is a consistent comfort. Things won’t always feel this way, good or bad.

Finding unconditional joy for the people I love is one of the purest forms of happiness I’ve experienced. I miss that feeling. I hope to get back to that pep-talk-delivering, flower-sending, congratulations-giving Katie someday soon.

In the meantime, I’ll start with the celebrations ahead of me. I’ll wish Sarah and Joseph a marriage full of love and growth. I’ll cheer on Becca as she gives birth, and be there for her as she adjusts to postpartum life. I’ll send texts to friends on their special days, just as they did on my hard days.

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