The following case study is a composite of many people I have known over many years. The name is a fictional one and any resemblance to any particular individual is unintended.
Suzanne couldn't figure out what was wrong. Despite the fact that she was about to marry the man she loved, she was having trouble feeling completely happy. She was pleased and felt positive about their upcoming wedding without hesitation, but just couldn't shake an undercurrent of sadness. She came to my office asking for help figuring out what was getting in the way and how she might overcome whatever it might be.
In our first session, Suzanne told me about her fiancé and their relationship. They met 2 ½ years ago and had been dating exclusively ever since. They moved in together about 6 months ago as they began planning their future. The two shared the same values and enjoyed many activities together. As we explored the history and meaning of this relationship, no red flags came to light.
"But doesn't this mean I don't really love him?" Suzanne worried. "Shouldn't I be super excited? Is there something wrong with me?"
Whenever we find an apparent association between two things, we tend to think one caused the other. When Suzanne noticed her ongoing low-level sadness in spite of such a happy situation, she naturally began to assume the impending marriage or something about the relationship was causing her distress.
In our next session we talked more about her history, as far back as she could remember. She described a happy childhood, enjoying an exceptionally close bond with her mother. Her two older sisters made her the baby of the family, which came with some perks as well as occasional teasing.
When Suzanne was in elementary school, a classmate of hers was diagnosed with leukemia and died later that year. She remembered having a hard time understanding how a "kid" could die. Other seminal life events included her parents' divorce when she was in high school and then a few years later her oldest sister's death in a car accident. Recently she was told her company is downsizing and she will have to find another job.
Through our work together, it became apparent that Suzanne had experienced multiple losses throughout her life, and they'd had more of an effect on her than she'd realized.
"But other than losing my job, those other awful things happened so long ago and I've done my grieving. My parents' divorce doesn't seem so terrible now - they both live nearby and everyone gets along just fine. And even though I miss my sister, I feel her presence with me every day. Honestly, my life is really good now," she insisted.
As we continued to explore her feelings and the meaning attached to them, Suzanne began to notice a default expectation of doom.
"You know," she observed, "I think I tend to anticipate bad news. Not in any realistic way - just kind of a background sense."
Our subsequent sessions helped Suzanne understand how this worked and then we explored ways of managing it. She learned her repeated experiences of loss had, in a way, trained her system to expect more; it had become normal for her. With that understanding, she began to open up other possibilities and allow today's delightful expectations to mingle with yesterday's tragic realities. Ultimately she was able to expand her mindfulness, encompassing moments of ongoing grief within genuine happiness and joy.
Have you experienced something stressful and difficult (even traumatic) that may have altered the way you move through life? Here are some reminders I've learned along the way:
1. My past does not have to predict my future.
2. There are ways of honoring our memories without getting lost in them.
3. Happiness is what we feel when something positive happens; joy is our appreciation of and gratitude for our life blessings.
4. Excitement can come from happy circumstances; joy often brings a sense of peace.
5. We can choose to allow happiness in and to cultivate joy no matter what we've been through.
Essays on Grief Resilience