February 25, 2016

Life After Loss: I’m Choosing Happiness.

Yellow flower

I have been thinking a lot about happiness lately.

In the last 4 years I lost both of my parents to cancer. My Mom died after two occurrences of breast cancer and my Dad died after a-six-year battle with prostate cancer.

Well-meaning people ask me how I get by, talk about the tragedy of my parents’ deaths and generally treat me like I must be a real sad sack. Honestly, I miss them very much and still have hard days—but I am also happy.

I did experience tragedy; my parents died 18 months apart. By the age 37 I was the oldest living member of my biological family. Certainly not what I expected, but I have a choice. I can wallow in grief and use their deaths as a reason to not be happy, or I can be happy in spite of what happened.

My parents were amazing people, their attitudes toward their illnesses and death were inspiring.

My Mom was very independent, she worked hard at maintaining that even when she was on oxygen and heavy duty pain medication. She never complained about her illness and didn’t let my sisters and I get down about it either. My Mom believed that everything in her life happened for a reason, and she confronted her illness with that belief.

My Dad spent 10 months on Hospice in a great deal of pain. At the end of his life he was on a fatal amount of narcotics, but he was so resistant to the pain medication that his dose just kept increasing. He was positive and happy everyday. He did not complain and did not feel sorry for himself. He was funny and happy right up to the end.

I know from watching my parents that happiness is a choice that is not related to the situations, circumstances and experiences in my life. I know I can choose to be happy at any point in my life regardless of what is happening around me. I have put together a list of tips that help me cultivate “happiness thinking.”

I don’t play the “one up” game with other people.

When people tell me of their woes I stop myself from “one upping” them with, “You think that’s bad, listen to this….” If I did that I am telling myself that having it worse than someone else is a badge of honor.

This gets all twisted up with pride and ego and before I know it I can’t wait to tell people all the bad things that happened that. Instead, I practice gratitude by thinking “I am so grateful for ____” when someone shares something negative that has happened to them. This shifts my thinking to remind to be grateful for everything in my life.

I look for meaning in everything.

Every experience can teach me something and bring something positive into my life.

While nursing my Dad through his terminal illness I was so grateful for all the little moments we had. In the last few months of his life I spent more one on one time with him than I ever had. His illness actually gave us more time together and strengthened our relationship.

I trust the process. Things take time to work out and sometimes everything has to fall apart so that I can re-build my life in a better way. I work to shift my perspective when things seem to go wrong, I ask, “What am I making room for by letting go of some things in my life?”

I choose positive people to be around. I know that we tend to sync up with the people we are with the most. If I spend a lot of time with people who think and communicate negatively I find that I do the same.

I cultivate my spiritual practice. Feeling connected to something has a huge impact on my happiness. I know that it doesn’t matter what my beliefs are, just that I have them and actively practice what I believe.

I try to get plenty of exercise and time outside. I know that my body needs movement and sunshine to function properly.

I stubbornly choose to be optimistic. I expect the best in people, and most of the time I get it. I don’t mean to say that I will never be disappointed but most of the time I am will pleasantly surprised. I look for the good in every person and situation. It’s easy to find the bad, so I actively seek the good qualities, positive outcomes and unexpected lessons.

I think of myself as happy now. Happiness isn’t something that I have to work to achieve. There is no right set of circumstances that magically create happiness in my life. I choose happiness now, right where I am, with exactly what I have. This way my happiness is not contingent on getting, doing, or having anything.

When I feel sad (mad, angry, hurt) I let myself be sad. The moment will pass and I can return to my normal place of happy.

Emotions are meant to be expressed, not stored. Happy people feel sad sometimes, but it isn’t permanent. It’s not like I will get stuck there if I allow myself to feel sad. Emotions are energy that need to be expended, I let them burn off so I can move forward.

I do get help if I feel sad all the time in spite of my efforts to feel happy. Depression is a very real problem that can be treated in many ways. If I do get stuck there, I know that I will need help to get out.

Choosing happiness is a daily practice for me.

Some days are better than others, but I know that I can always start new, each day. A big part of it is forgiving myself for bad days and allowing for normal emotional responses. There is nothing wrong with having a bad day, but I know that it is my responsibility to myself to choose happiness everyday, in spite of whatever is going on.


Author: Kristi Brower

Editor: Sara Kärpänen

Image: Derek Truninger / Unsplash

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