Caring for ourselves and holding onto memories may hold the key.
In 1938, Harvard University began a longitudinal project called the Grant study. Since then, for nearly 80 years, the study has followed and measured 268 undergraduates and their direct descendants in an effort to determine what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing. George Vaillant, who oversaw the study for three decades, said: “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study point … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’”
So we know from this study, and additional research, that the number one predictor of happiness is the quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. That deep connections are necessary, and that, according to the Harvard study, if not found in a mother or father, good sibling relationships—among others—appear to be especially powerful.
So what happens when those people, those deep connections, are no longer physically here. How do we move forward without our loved ones?
Last April, I lost my 55-year-old brother and only sibling, following a fatal accident. Four months later, at the end of August, my mother passed away at the age of 83. My father died 11 years ago. I have, thus, been stripped of the people, who—despite the complications of aging parents and a complex family—were a key component of my flourishing.
As we grieve, how can we take care of ourselves and hold onto the memory of those we’ve loved and lost?
The most important thing I’ve done for myself in recent months is allow myself to feel whatever I’m feeling, whenever I’m feeling it. I’ve broken down in tears during a yoga class, at a concert, and in the middle of a meal. My sadness surfaces on its own time clock. I let it take hold of me, embrace it, and allow it to rise, knowing it will eventually dissipate. Loss is sad and real, and we deserve to be kind to ourselves when we feel its impact.
Grief is not a sign of weakness. It signifies the deep relationships we’ve had with our loved ones, and elicits strong emotions. And as we know, relationships with those we love are what matter most. Whenever I hear one of my brother’s favorite songs, I smile, thinking about him closing his eyes while dancing around the room. The hurt may follow the smile—it is all part of the healing.
My family loved to take photographs. While it’s hard work to organize photos when you have many, it can be joy-filled to fish through older ones and create books or frames to remember those you’ve lost. You can also create a file in your computer and date it by decade. If you want to re-visit some memories from the 1990s, for example, it’s easy to access and you can flip through your online album. I have photos of my brother and my parents framed around my house. It soothes me to “see” them whenever I walk by, and sometimes I stop to take a closer look.
Part of my healing has involved recalling memories and sharing them with others. At times, I write them in a journal for myself, and at others, I recount stories to my children, husband and friends, sometimes smiling and laughing as I recall the details of a particular anecdote. Reflecting on our relationships and particular moments we shared together reminds us of our closeness. It can, of course, be painful to think back to these moments, so try if possible to call up stories when there was happiness and good health.
Adjusting to a New Reality
Part of adapting to a new reality involves investing in other relationships. After loss, it can be difficult to rise to social occasions. But remembering that our time spent with others can be comforting and boost our mood, try to seek out time with people who are caring and with whom you share common interests. Spiritual or faith-based organizations can also help throughout your healing process, reassuring beliefs and values that may have been tested by loss.
Learning from Loss
Through pangs of pain and moments of disbelief, I have been trying to seek those traits that my parents and brother would will me to have to adapt to this change—life without them. My mother had a wisdom about her. She knew how to live in the moment, knowing that everything is impermanent, that our lives are in a constant state of change. And my brother was the most authentic person I ever met, always standing up for his beliefs and unafraid to be his true self despite what others thought. Maybe you can reflect on a trait you admired in your loved one, and see if it can become a strength of yours as well.
The Road to Rebuilding
My new role is a painful one. I recently heard someone say that it’s not true that time heals—that the pain never heals completely, but gets less acute with time. Eleven years later, I still miss my father and think of him so often. Now, having lost my mother and brother in the last six months, I don’t know what time will bring. But I do know how fortunate and enriched I am to have had the parents I had, and the brother I had, who will be forever with me.
And I know that I will remember what nearly 80 years of Harvard research has confirmed: Happiness is love. Full stop.