Reclaiming Joy

By Rhonda Lovell

In Western culture, we often shy away from pain and other strong emotions that come along with grief. When they surface despite our best efforts to suppress them, we try to make them abide by our rules and fit into tidy boxes we can display or hide on a shelf. In doing so, we may be doing ourselves & our healing a disservice. In Henri Nouwen’s “A Letter of Consolation”, he writes that “consolation and comfort are to be found where our wounds hurt most.” This has proven to be a profound truth for me – a mindful path to uncovering and accepting joy in an unexpected corner of grief.

Eating became a complicated dreadful thing for me in the wake of my father’s recent death. Dad died one week after a choking episode on Fathers’ Day led to aspiration pneumonia – a complication of the dementia he’d been diagnosed with 10 years ago. The catalyst of his end, the trauma of witnessing his suffering & the guilt of being left behind to partake in life’s pleasures, had taken away all the joy I once derived from food. Every bite I took was now riddled with fear, pain and guilt. When I encountered mealtime joy, I’d resist it. I’d catch myself feeling glimmers of happiness – enjoying a flavour or enrapt in conversation. The moment I’d acknowledge that joy, it was replaced with confusion and even shame. Grief is also exhausting and made my thinking as foggy as the island of my birth. The once simple self-care task of feeding myself, let alone rediscovering joy through it, felt impossible.

As I came to acknowledge this source of my deepest pain though, I came to accept it as a potential source of healing. Rather than running away from this dark place of grief, I’ve shone a gentle light on it, approached it with a mindful shift in perspective from How do I stop the pain? to How can this pain help me uncover & reclaim joy? How do I accept that grief doesn’t mean the absence of joy and embrace these gifts – these moments of levity & contentment, these simple pleasures – with open arms & without guilt? Three weeks ago I signed up for a meal delivery program – I choose the meals I want, they send me the ingredients and the recipes. By choosing to mindfully enter into and explore this source of pain, I have found motivation & a source for nourishment & respite for my body, mind and soul. Much of the thinking is done for me. Dinner time has become a space of clarity, order and subtle creativity, a place of gratitude for a life continued & the privilege of plenty, a celebration of the bounty of the earth, the resiliency of the human body and spirit and the power to find healing in and through our darkest inner places, a reclaimed source of joy. I plate the food beautifully as though for an honoured guest because I recognize that with every meal I am choosing self-care, I am choosing healing, I am choosing to show up for my life.

My new companion Grief still joins me at the table sometimes and that’s ok. I’ve come to accept that these powerful emotions are not mutually exclusive – they don’t always travel solo. Paradoxical as it may seem, pain and joy, life and death, celebration and grief can coexist peacefully when we invite them in and set places for them at the table.