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“I Promise You Won’t Always Be Winded By Someone Else’s Happiness”—A Lesson in Grief, Healing, and the Power of Time

“I Promise You Won’t Always Be Winded By Someone Else’s Happiness”—A Lesson in Grief, Healing, and the Power of Time

By Clare Mackintosh
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Toward the end of my police career, I had an office in a busy station. It was a few minutes’ walk from there to the canteen, and the route I took made it even longer. It ate precious minutes from an already busy day, but it meant I didn’t have to walk past the Photograph.

One day I was heading for a coffee with a colleague, and it would have been strange to have suggested walking a longer route. The Photograph was shot in a bright, white studio, as they all seemed to be back then. Eight by six, in an inexpensive frame, it stood on a desk, lording it over piles of paperwork and mugs of half-drunk tea. In it, two parents lay on the floor. Children are piled on top of them, heads thrown back in laughter. Blue jeans, bare feet, crisp white T-shirts. Joy pouring from every pixel.

They taunted me, the family in that photo. They locked eyes with me, gleeful in their happiness, their togetherness. I hated them. I hated the parents, the tween, the toddler. I hated the baby. I hated their happiness, their no-cares-in-the-world, their matching outfits. I imagined their lives to be one long over-saturated photograph; that they lived forever in their blue jeans and spotless shirts, always laughing, always joking. Not for them the sharp stab of grief when they posed for a photograph; the empty arm around a missing child. Not for them the undercurrent of guilt beneath fleeting moments of happiness, because grief is a thief who robs even those moments of their purity.

As we drew level with the desk, I stared at the photo. It seemed to be displayed just for me, flaunted at just the right angle. Why did people have photos of their families on their desks, anyway? Were they so absent-minded they needed visual reminders? It was showboating, that was all. My family’s better than your family. Look how happy my kids are. Look how alive they are.

The owner of the desk was looking at me curiously. I knew him only enough to exchange a greeting in passing. Certainly not well enough to be scrutinizing the occupants of a photo frame as though it were a spot-the-difference quiz.

“Lovely photo,” I managed. I bit the inside of my cheek until my mouth filled with metal.

There are moments in grief I have found to be mercifully brief. Others are insidious and deep-rooted; the bindweed from which your garden is never quite free, no matter how often you pull it up. Bitterness was my bindweed. I felt it physically: a hot, angry surge. My skin tightened, as though it could barely contain what was inside, as though I might split open and my sourness would flood out.

I didn’t wish anyone ill, but at the same time, I didn’t wish them well. My resentment had no boundaries and, seemingly, no logic. I had lost a child, so it was unsurprising that pregnancy and birth announcements were hard to deal with, but (ever the over-achiever) I was bitter, too, at every wedding, every graduation, every new job or house move. I placed the happiness of other people in inverse proportion to my own wretchedness, and some days my mental state depended entirely on how often I saw someone laugh. I could only hold it together if other people were struggling, too, if they were as unhappy as I was.

I can’t tell you if this is normal—I’m not an expert, and this is not that kind of book—but I can tell you it was normal for me, for a long time. It isn’t the sort of conversation one easily has with friends (Hey, you know when you got that promotion? I smashed a plate and pretended it was you, ha ha), so it is dangerously easy to imagine I was the only one who felt this way. Experience, though, has taught me that we are never as unique as we think we are, so if you recognize yourself on this page, I think we should both claim it as normal.

It won’t surprise you to know that social media was not my friend during this time. Facebook is a relentless torrent of smugness, with its galleries of joyful moments and happy families. Automated prompts nudge us to publicly celebrate Mothering Sunday, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day. It is a platform built to share happiness, and each time I logged on, it tipped me further down into grief.

Great pics! I’d post. Looks like a fab day! The exclamation marks, always the exclamation marks, their chirpy enthusiasm compensating for my bitterness. They were great pictures, it did look like a fabulous day, and I was glad—I really was—that my friends’ lives were so perfect. But deep down, where it really mattered, something shattered.

I suspect it is easier to be an unpleasant person if you have no idea that you are unpleasant. There are people who go through life scattering bitterness without any recognition that their words are laced with bile, and they don’t wrestle with their conscience over it because being horrible is such a natural state for them that they don’t even consider it to be horrible.

But I knew. I was rotting from the inside, and I knew it.

If you experience this, you’ll know it, too. You’ll scroll through photographs of a friend’s happy day (or, if you’re like me, you’ll seek out the social media feeds of happy strangers in order to torture yourself still further), and you’ll feel the canker eat away at your soul.

It is an awful way to live, and I stayed that way for longer than anyone who knew me will imagine. A sour, envious, unpleasant person. I hated other people’s happiness, but I hated myself more. Grief had awakened a bitterness I didn’t know I was capable of, and I had no idea how to rid myself of it.

Like many facets of my grief, coming to terms with other people’s good fortune has happened in several stages. For a long time, my bitterness was indiscriminate. I felt the gut punch of someone else’s achievements regardless of how they related to my own life. A friend’s tennis success felt like a personal attack, despite having no inclination to learn myself; two friends laughing in a café sent a current of loneliness through me, even though I’d chosen to be by myself that day. I had found a publisher for my debut novel—something I’d dreamed of since I was a child—yet I couldn’t shake this sense of envy for other people’s happiness. I had to mute one police acquaintance on social media when she was celebrating her promotion to a new rank, because I was eaten up with bitterness. I had chosen to leave the force, so why did I resent someone who had stayed? Because they had made it work, and I hadn’t?

It might seem obvious that one person’s dream holiday bears no relation to another person’s grief, but in my experience it’s a difficult lesson to learn. Humans are hardwired for fairness, and when someone you love dies, the world tilts. Why us? Why only us? Why should others fly when we are falling?

I did what I always do, which is to pretend everything is okay.

There are lots of things wrong with this approach, especially if it leads—as it has done for me, at times—to bottling everything up so badly you break, but as a fundamental principle there’s something to be said for faking it. In the workplace, we’re told to dress for the job you want, because of the psychological benefits to both the interviewee and their assessor. In a similar vein, be the person you want to be has not only kept me (relatively) sane, it has slowly dissolved my bitterness.

Every day, I made myself say something nice. I congratulated friends on their career success, their holiday of a lifetime, and—yes—even their tennis scores. I smiled at babies, at laughing friends, at families enjoying the sunshine. Slowly, the disconnect between my words and what I felt inside began to close. I began to mean what I said.

I look back sometimes at my early days on social media, when the children were babies. I posted hundreds of photographs. They’ve appeared on the feeds of people I know well, and less well, harvesting the hearts and comments I like to pretend don’t matter. Only I know the true story behind the filters; only I can remember how I was reeling with grief, anxiety, and depression. I look at a photo taken at the wildlife park, when my chest felt so tight I had to grip the side of the penguin enclosure to stay upright; a picture posted from a party where we lined up the kids in height order, and all I could see was the boy who wasn’t there. I scroll through a decade of birthdays and Christmas celebrations, of nights out with the girls, when all I wanted to do was crawl home and cry.

In every photograph, I’m smiling.

So much can be hidden by a smile. It’s easy to forget, when you’re gripped by grief, that nobody’s life is perfect. No one’s life is filled with laughter from start to finish, no one’s days are untouched by sorrow, or worry, or fear. We take photographs at happy moments in our lives because we need to preserve them; because we know we’ll need to return to them on days when we can’t raise a smile. The joy we paste on our faces for a photograph represents how we want to feel—how we want to remember we felt—not how we truly feel.

When someone’s happiness takes your breath away for all the wrong reasons, remind yourself that you’re seeing a single page in their life, not the whole story. A picture paints a thousand words, but there are many ways to read them.

You are not a terrible person. The bitterness you’re feeling isn’t the real you. It’s a veneer applied by grief, and it will slowly wear away until it vanishes altogether. Your friends will keep sharing their good news, and you’ll keep saying through gritted teeth how pleased you are, and how great it is, and all the time your insides will hollow out with pain. And then, one day, you’ll realize your fingers aren’t curled into bitter fists, your nails are no longer carving distress signals in your palm. You’ll realize that when you heard your friend’s news, your first thought was not of what you’d lost, but of what they had gained.

Every person you’ve ever met could find happiness, and it wouldn’t lessen your chances of doing the same.

You know that, right?

They could be mired in grief, and it still wouldn’t take away yours.

Happiness isn’t a zero-sum game; it doesn’t depend on other people’s good fortune.

When someone dies, it isn’t only that other people’s joy is hard to hear about, it’s that we can’t counter it with anything joyful of our own. The small pleasures we might have found in our old lives seem meaningless when set against the backdrop of our grief. So the cherry tree is full of blossoms. Big deal. It’s just a tree. Due a week off work? What’s to celebrate, when all that means is more empty time to fill with sadness?

You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?

It gets easier.

There will be good news again—something that fills your heart with joy. I promise. It won’t feel the way it did before you broke, but not for the reasons you think.

The difference will be in the way you choose to share your news.

You’ll hesitate before picking up the phone or posting online. You’ll wonder whether it’s the right time, whether you’ve chosen the right person to tell. What’s going on in their life? Can your news wait?

Loss breeds bitterness, but it creates compassion, too, and when one has burned itself out, the other will remain. Grief doesn’t turn you into a terrible person; it makes you a kind one.

Despite my best intentions, I have never quite managed to kick my social media habit. I justify my presence across numerous platforms on the basis that I need it for work, that it’s nice to stay in touch with far-flung friends. I scroll through my timeline over a morning cup of tea, looking at holiday snaps and widening my eyes at posts that reveal a seemingly pleasant new acquaintance to be a raging fascist. Unfriend.

A friend is celebrating the birth of a new arrival. I have reached that stage where—although my own children are thankfully not yet ready to procreate—my friends are having grandchildren, and this new baby is the first of a generation. She is wrinkled and pink; nestled in the arms of her mother, who reclines in an inflatable birthing pool, exhausted and elated. It was a home birth, I read, over in a few short hours. A calming midwife, essential oils, music playing. A beautiful experience, the post says. I think briefly of my own traumatic labors—the urgency, the crowded rooms, the flicker of ceiling lights as doctors raced my trolley into surgery—but there is no connection between the two. I write a message—She’s beautiful—congratulations! So glad they had the birth they’d hoped for—and I mean it.

I switch to Twitter for a final fix before I finish my tea. Here, my timeline is less personal and more business—writers and editors, readers and critics. An author I know well has won a prize; a prize for which I was not even considered, let alone shortlisted. I read her excited post and wait for the flash of envy that was once ever present.

I realize I’m frowning.

Here it comes. Like an old friend.

Look, I never said I was perfect…

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Clare Mackintosh is the multi-award-winning author of four Sunday Times bestselling novels. Translated into forty languages, her books have sold more than two million copies worldwide and have been New York Times bestsellers. Her most recent novels are Hostage and The Last Party. Clare lives in North Wales. 

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