Sorrow and Joy

The Connection Between Grief & Joy (May 2023)

Why are joy and sorrow so interconnected?

How is it that we can go from deep grief with a river of tears to feelings of gratitude and joy that leak out as smiles and laughter?

In my last blog I talked about being a joy detective and intentionally seeking out joy during times of deep sorrow. I want to continue this curiosity in this blog.

In my research on grief, I came across Doctor Laurel Mellin’s book called Wired for Joy: A Revolutionary Method for Creating Happiness from Within. She talks about brain states and calls her work emotional brain training (EBT). She describes our emotional process in a circular pattern of five brain states with state one being pure joy and then each state with increasing stress with state five being completely stressed out.

Grief is a state of extreme stress, am I right? 

Interestingly these opposites states, joyous and stressed out, live side by side.

She goes on to explain the phenomenon of being in deep pain and then suddenly switching to feeling pure joy and gratitude. She says, “In the darkest moment, if you really look for it, you’ll notice a thin band of light…under the pain is the joy.”

I also know the opposite to be true-I can be in a pleasurable state of joy and then suddenly be filled with grief.

Both are true. Our pleasure and joy are gateways to grief; our grief, sorrow and stress can be gateways to joy. They are portals to each other.

It reminds me of Kahlil Gabran’s writings on joy and sorrow…

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the same well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? —Kahlil Gabran

I’m curious if you also know this dance between pleasure and grief. Please email me back and share. 

And so what do we do with this knowledge that these two states are portals to the other? For me it helps to know that bliss exists right next to my grief.

Dr. Mellin tells us to seek out joy points, or the pleasure pathways of our neurotransmitters. I call this being a joy detective. When we feel joy, our neurotransmitters light up the left prefrontal cortex which is associated with positive emotions and moving forward. While this is happening, the activation of the right side of the prefrontal cortex, (all about negative emotions and withdrawal), is toned down.

Here are some tips to finding joy:

Schedule it! No really-make plans for things that bring you pleasure. Make play dates like you used to as a kid.

Recently I planned to dance while the sun was setting. I wanted to play with the lighting for making some fun videos for Instagram. I haven’t done this yet because of the weather, but just thinking about it changes my mood and I feel lighter.
Which reminds me, even if you don’t have time to do the activity, you can simply imagine it and change your brain state.

Although, this is where it can get tricky if you’re grieving because when we’re asked to imagine things that bring us joy, that may bring up older memories of our lost loved ones.

So here’s more tips on navigating this fine line between grief and joy. 

  • Go slow and have patience.
  • Have loads of self-compassion for your process.
  • Simply notice your grief and don’t judge it.
  • Practice joy often and know that it will return.
  • Make a list of things that bring you pleasure.

You may have to start a new list, a post grief pleasure list as it may be very different from your pleasure prior to your loss.

I speak about this in my Online Grief Relief Program-an eight module program that gives you tools to befriend grief. One of my favorite modules I created was all about joy and how to find it again after grief. In it I suggest you create a pleasure book so that when you forget what brings you joy, you can pull it out to remind yourself.

Recently someone took my online course and really enjoyed it. She signed up for my package that comes with two 1:1 sessions with me. (There’s also a package with six sessions). When she was finished we met in person and she brought her book to show me.

I was overjoyed! She bought a handmade blank book and then artfully took notes and made art inspired by my creative prompts. It was so beautiful!

Using art to track her grief brought her joy and then showing it to me lit me up. And now she has an artistic reminder of how to be with her grief when it comes.

I’ll end with a direct quote from her:

“I highly recommend Beth Erlander’s Grief Relief online program. It provides a safe container for holding grief as well as rituals, mindful breathing techniques and other tangible tools for releasing grief in a healthy way that I will continue to use. I’ve participated in two other grief programs after significant losses in my life and Beth has masterfully woven together the wisdom from both along with fresh insights in a way that has been profoundly helpful, integrating practical knowledge with intuitive understanding. To quote Francis Weller, ‘Grief work is soul work and soul work is slow work.’ Beth’s program provides a framework for continuing my journey with grief allowing more space for joy to enter in.”  ~Anne K.