"I only became really happy after my family was killed. Horrible to say." Yet Louise Penny has the courage to say it. Shocking as it was to hear, I find that there is some truth for me in her character's comment. "Their deaths changed me," she says. "At some point I was standing in my living room unable to move forward or back. Frozen. That's why I asked about the snowstorm. That's what it had felt like, for months and months. As though I was lost in a whiteout. Everything was confused and howling. I couldn't go on. I was going to die. I didn't know how, but I knew I couldn't support the loss any longer. I'd staggered to a stop...lost, disoriented, at a dead end...in my own living room. Lost in the most familiar, the most comforting of places."
But she didn't die. And neither did I. For Penny's character, the turning point was a workman standing at her door with a sign that said "ice ahead." He needed to use the phone. For her, it was a message of hope, direct from God. She describes how, in that moment, her "despair disappeared. The grief remained, of course, but I knew then that the world wasn't a dark and desperate place. I was so relieved. In that moment I found hope. This stranger with the sign had given it to me. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but suddenly the gloom was lifted.
"My life's never been the same since that day I opened the door. I'm happy now. Content. Funny isn't it? I had to go to Hell to find happiness."
For me, it wasn't a single event that lifted the gloom and despair, but more a gentle dawning over time. It felt like a trip I took with Sam, leaving at midnight and driving through sunrise. We were driving West through Utah, so the dawn was behind us, and I kept looking in the rearview mirror waiting for more light. The hint of light started to glow in the sky long before the sun came over the plateaus in my mirror. I kept waiting to see that sun burst over the horizon, but it seemed to take hours. That's how it was for me. I kept looking to the horizon waiting for the sun to burst through, waiting for the day I would awake, as people described, and I would just feel better. I was desperate to see the gloom lift, the light shine again, dawn to find me. But it was not a sudden sunburst. It was a slow moving aside of the clouds and fog.
Yes, dawn has found me. I see it, not in the absence of grief, but in the ability to be in grief and sorrow and know that I have the strength to endure it as it slowly integrates into my experience. Hope and comfort, peace and compassion are no longer abstract intellectual concepts, but felt experiences that I desperately need and desire to cultivate.
And there is truth in the phrase that after the loss of one deeply loved I understand happiness differently.
I have a new capacity for it. Life takes on a precious beauty. Things that seemed critical before fall to the background and I find myself looking each day for grace, beauty, joy, love. I just feel more attuned to it. I see special moments that I never saw before. The grief is still there, yes, but happiness is equally present, and looks much, much different.