When Joy Finds You on the Darkest of Days

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

Some Decembers you don’t put up a tree. You let others do the shopping and the wrapping. You wait to get through the month.

Some Decembers you put up the tree. Brave the crowds for one whirlwind shopping trip, see the sign in the bank window Dec 22. Feel your hands get heavy and your arms feel like they will float away. That’s how grief hits sometimes.

Some Decembers you march into the month determined to do battle, reclaim the joy. Some Decembers you whisper, “Uncle” and admit defeat before it even arrives.

And then one December, you approach the month with less trepidation than usual and no false bravado. You look at the calendar and the to do lists, the events leading up to The Day.

And you stop there, before you even get to Christmas.

The Day. The day he died.

You take a deep breath. And you begin.

But instead of telling yourself December is hard, you look at each day as its own. You move through December 1 and December 2.

You run the 5K. You host the birthday party. You bake cookies to take to school and host another birthday party. You give space to the joy part of the month, the living part of the month.

This year, you don’t hold joy and sorrow all through the month. You leave space for the grief, but you don’t pick it up. This year you can choose to do that. It wasn’t always that way, and it may not always be.

This year you find yourself not feeling the weight of the month so much. Yes, you burst into tears reading one of the Christmas stories, the one about the man who’s wife and baby died. But you don’t find yourself bursting into tears at the store and the bank and the school parking lot.

You approach each event as it comes instead of trying to hold all of it. And so you find yourself on December 16, on the night before the day he died 9 years ago, not quite sure what is happening.

You sit by the fire in the glow of the tree. You feel mostly calm. Quiet. You turn off your email and Amazon and Facebook. You want to trust that you are OK. No, you know you are OK, but you want to trust that the weight won’t crash down unexpectedly. You want to believe that this year is different. Better.

You think that may this year you won’t crack open to the wild rawness that has filled so many Decembers.

You worry that you won’t crack open. You don’t feel him, and if you don’t feel the heavy grief, what is there?

You don’t know. So you wait to see what December 17 will bring this year. Whatever it is, you will let it come. Let it come.

The day comes with a snow storm that makes everything slow down. Your daughter’s basketball game is cancelled. You aren’t expected to be anywhere, do anything. You see this as a small gift.

You see the beauty of the snow, the beauty you were too numb to see to nine years ago. You breathe the cold air deeply. And still, you are restless, out of sorts.

You don’t know what to do with this day, so you do what you always do. You make space for memory, for grief, for love.

Each of these nine years it has been different. There have been years of distraction and deep focus on new life. Years when you could barely get out of bed. There was the year you brought yourself, surprised, to a holiday party. A small one. A safe space. One where people knew what day it was for you. One where people knew about empty arms.

This year you watched your girls build Legos and turned on a Christmas movie for them. This year, you said yes to dinner with friends who are like family.

This year, you surprised yourself again and said yes to night sledding. You walked with your headlamp following little legs running ahead. You trudged up the hill through the cemetery (not his) to the top of the sledding hill.

You watch the kids take the first runs filled with whoops and laughter. You look at the bare trees against the gray clouds. You breathe deep the cold again. You plop down on the saucer sled that was handed to you and start spinning down the hill.

You feel the cold air and snow spray on your face. You spin and tip at the end. You get up smiling and trudge back up the hill. You take a few more exhilarating runs.

Then you stand at the top of the hill, smiling. Your heart is pounding. You feel alive. And as you smile spreads, your chest expands too, with love and light and joy.

Nine years ago, eight years ago, even last year . . . you couldn’t have imagined yourself smiling at the top of a hill covered with snow on this day. Real smiling, whole body smiling. But here you are.


Joy Comes Back

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

The first few notes of the song swelled. I felt the music, smiled, then felt my chest tighten with memory.

I wanna be ready.

Earlier this month, my husband and I went up to Ashfield to see Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem. The place was packed; the kitchen backed up; the crowd loud over the band during the first set.

As we waited for our burgers, I told my husband that the first time I had heard Rani Arbo was at the Green River Festival. “Remember that time when Kath had free tickets and Kathleen was a baby?” He nodded.

I had been reluctant to go. Kathleen wasn’t sleeping, and we were deep in the second year after Henry’s death. While my healing had taken a huge leap when Kathleen was born, I was still wiped out by early grief and learning to navigate the world with a baby who died and one in arms.

I was tired, physically and emotionally. And it was raining. But I went.

In a tent out of the rain, I listened to music, let it flow through me. And then this song started low and slow. It started with the weight of where I was:

I wanna be ready.
I wanna be read-y.
I wanna be ready. 
When joy comes back to me.

And then it exploded into its own joyfulness, and I couldn’t help but dance.

You know how a smell can bring you back? How one minute you’re washing your hands then the smell of hospital soap puts you right back in the NICU, the worry and fear alive again in your body?

Music can do that to. When I heard the opening notes of “Joy Comes Back,” for just a minute, I felt the lost, heavy feeling of that second year of grief. I had to take a deep breath. I stood still, letting it flow through me.

And then it left, as I knew it would. It’s been eight years since Henry died, and those core sorrow moments, still come, but they pass. They move on without leaving me searching for a chair or a dark corner to curl up in.

Back in 2008, when Kathleen had pried open the tight protective fist I had wrapped around my own heart, joy had seeped back into my life. That joy was deep, but I still wanted more joy, more light in my life.

I wanted to be ready. And I was.

I knew, even in the depths of grief, that joy would come back. I knew it even when I couldn’t fathom how or really conjure up what that might feel like. I just kept opening. I felt my sorrow fully, and I felt the joy that way too.

I write a lot about the moments that almost break me, the times when heavy darkness sits with me. I write about that because it’s where I need to work through things and because the sorrow is still here, eight years moving into nine. But it isn’t all sorrow. Joy has come back. If it hasn’t come back for you yet, be ready. Let it come.