When Sorrow and Joy Collide: Coping with Opposite Emotions

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In 2007, my husband and I became guardians of our twin grandchildren. Our elder daughter, their mother, died from the injuries she received in a car crash. Six months later the twin’s father died from the injuries he received in a car crash. Two more family members died as well, and we were stunned by grief.

The twins, one boy and one girl, were 15 years old when they moved in with us. Our challenge was to stay upbeat for them and grieve at the same time. I’m a strong person, but wondered if I would survive such tragedy. As time passed, however, I realized that having teens in the house again was fun.

Still, I experienced two opposite emotions, joy and sorrow, at the same time. Like bumper cars in an amusement park, these emotions crashed into each other. Sorrow and joy didn’t just hit each other, they fractured, the parts of one merging with parts of the other. I would have a good laugh, and the next minute tears would be sliding down my cheeks. Sometimes I wondered if I was going crazy. But I wasn’t crazy, I was overcome with grief.

In The Courage to Grieve author Judy Tatelbaum lists the strengths that help us accept death: knowledge, a support system, knowing one’s purpose, courage, and emotional maturity. During my first year of grieving I turned to Tatelbaum’s book so much I felt she had written it for me. I thought about her list of strengths and put them to use. You may be feeling opposite emotions now. How can you cope?

Research grief. There’s a wealth of information online and in public libraries. Centering Corporation in Omaha, Nebraska, the largest and oldest grief center in the US, has a wealth of information.

Check your support system. A system that functioned well five years ago may need some updating. Is the contact information correct? Do you see any gaps?

Keep a journal. Putting thoughts into words can be very beneficial and help you make sense of what’s going on. You will re-discover yourself in the words you write.

Re-think your purpose. Becoming a guardian altered my purpose. The new one: Protect the twins, nurture them, encourage them, and love them more each day. Everything else in life was secondary.

Tap emotional maturity. According to Tatelbaum, “Emotional maturity is the willingness to acknowledge and cope with reality, to experience and express our feeling; it is also a kind of resilience, a capacity to bounce back to ‘normal’ after we have faced stress.”

Be selective about advice. Grief expert Helen Fitzgerald offers other suggestions in her book, “The Grieving Teen.” Well-meaning friends and relatives will say dumb things, she notes, and some comments may come from their discomfort with the topic of death. You have the right to ignore these comments.

Grief tests us and we are stronger than we know. We can draw upon our strengths, use our minds, acquire new coping skills, and craft a future.

Harriet Hodgson

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Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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