Tag Archives: death

What’s a Critical Habit for Happiness? “Remembering the People We Miss Most.”

Interview: Allison Gilbert.

I don’t even remember when or how I met Allison Gilbert. We keep banging into each other in the world of New York area writers, and it’s always thought-provoking and fun to talk to her.

She has a new book that just hit the shelves. Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive is all about how to keep alive our memories of the people we love, after they’re gone — in a way that’s about happiness and remembering, not sadness and grieving. The book is crammed with specific, manageable, creative ideas for holding onto precious memories. (What a brilliant title for this subject, right?)

Given her subject, I was eager to talk to her about habits and happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Allison: Being proactive about remembering loved ones I’ve lost.  Honoring past relationships has significant restorative power.  Celebrating what our family and friends still mean to us — even if they’ve been gone one year, fifteen years, or more — makes us happier.  This is because grief, especially when new, tends to make individuals feel out of control. Taking steps to remember leads to empowerment, and feeling empowered is what enables us regain our footing and charge forward.  Absence and presence can coexist.  Moving forward doesn’t have to mean leaving your loved ones behind.

Which habits are most important to you professionally? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Getting up early to write.  My alarm is set every day for 5:30am, before my husband and our two teenagers begin to stir.   I use this time to think and type without interruption.  Spending these concentrated moments on my writing puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day.  I’ve focused on myself — the work I enjoy and need to do — and then I can be more giving to my family.  Getting up early to write it a lot like putting my oxygen mask on first.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Without hesitation, I am an Upholder.   I’m very good at setting deadlines for myself and meeting them.  I also LOVE to-do lists!

Have you ever changed a habit over a prolonged period of time, after years of struggle?

Yes, over a decade, after several family members died in rapid succession, including my parents. Immediately following each of their funerals, I never had to look far to share a story or hear one.  But a few months later, outside the holidays and other special occasions, I hesitated to bring them up in conversation.  Anecdotes I told my children seemed heavy or forced, and I didn’t want to make my friends uncomfortable. I also had so many questions most of my well-meaning friends couldn’t answer. What should I do with all their belongings— the random collections of loose papers, official documents, silverware, dishes, gardening tools, photo albums, VHS tapes, film reels, and 35mm slides? What should I keep? Where do I even start?  In some respects, because techniques for honoring and celebrating loved ones are seldom discussed, I felt lonelier at that later time than when my parents and other family members died.

Over time, I came to an important conclusion.  Nobody is responsible for keeping my family’s memory alive except me.  For my parents and other loved ones to continue enriching my life—and for my children to get to know their relatives—it would be up to me to develop the habit of integrating them into our already full and busy routines.  So the more I explored ways to celebrate their memory — cooking reminiscent foods, using technology and social media to frame their memory in a contemporary context — the happier I felt.  I embraced the idea that I could move forward, live and rich and joyful life, while keeping the memory of my loved ones alive.  This new habit has been a game changer.  It’s brought immeasurable joy and grace to my life.  In fact, as I was researching and writing Passed and Present I learned something quite astounding:  Taking steps to appropriately remember loved ones has been proven to be essential for healing.  Individuals who keep their loved one’s memory alive almost always fare better emotionally than those who don’t.  Who knew?! A critical habit for happiness is remembering the people we miss most.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

My mother.   My mother was a top executive recruiter and was often interviewed for magazines and books.  She was an expert source in Dr. Joyce Brothers’ book, The Successful Woman: How You Can Have a Career, a Husband and a Family — and Not Feel Guilty About It.  The book wasn’t relevant to me when it was published (it came out when I was in high school), but now that my mom is gone, I cherish the perspective she offered on habits.  She often used small pockets of time for guilt-free pleasure.  The best such nugget is on Page 113.  In this passage, my mother was asked how she finds time to take care of herself, even go clothes shopping, when she was also running an international enterprise.  Here’s what she said:

“The only time I spend any time going shopping is when I’m traveling on business.  If I’m in Dallas and have an appointment at nine and the next one isn’t until three, there is nothing I can do in between.  I can’t talk with my daughter.  I can’t write a business proposal.  So I go shopping.  It’s the only time I can shop without guilt.”  

This reads a little dated, of course.  My mother offered her point of view before laptops and cell phones. But her thinking still rings very true for me.  And if I’m being honest, the Passed and Present Memory Bash Book Tour might provide just these kind of guilt-free shopping opportunities for me.  I can’t wait to get on the road — meet readers — and also find windows of time to buy some new clothes.  I’ll be enthusiastically celebrating my mother’s memory with every dress I find. (To learn more about the #MemoryBash Movement, read more here.)

Like Me, Are You Haunted by Reading People’s Final Journal Entries?

Lately, I’ve been somewhat obsessively reading Thomas Merton’s journals.

It was very eerie to read the final entry in his journal — which, of course, he had no idea would be his last. And that got me remembering other final journal entries from authors I love.

From Thomas Merton:

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a little while I leave the hotel. I’m going to say Mass at St. Louis Church, have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, and then on to the Red Cross place this afternoon.

The Journals of Thomas Merton, vol. 7, December 8, 1968, Bangkok (Merton died on December 10, 1968, while at a conference, from an accidental electric shock from a fan with faulty wiring)

From Virginia Woolf:

A curious sea side feeling in the air today. It reminds me of lodgings on a parade at Easter. Everyone leaning against the wind, nipped & silenced. All pulp removed.

This windy corner. And Nessa is at Brighton, & I am imagining how it wd be if we could infuse souls.

Octavia’s story. Could I englobe it somehow? English youth in 1900.

Two long letters from Shena & O. I cant tackle them, yet enjoy having them.

L.  is doing the rhododendrons…

–The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 5, March 24, 1941, Sussex (Woolf drowned herself on March 28, 1941)

Most haunting of all, from Anne Frank:

…I just can’t keep it up anymore, because when everybody starts hovering over me, I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if…if only there were no other people in the world.

The Diary of Anne Frank, August 1, 1944, Amsterdam (Frank was discovered and arrested on August 4, 1944, and died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in late February or early March 1945)

From Flannery O’Connor:

This isn’t a journal entry, but the final letter written by Flannery O’Connor.

Dear Raybat,

Cowards can be just as vicious as those who declare themselves–more so. Dont take any romantic attitude toward that call. Be properly scared and go on doing what you have to do, but take the necessary precautions. And call the police. That might be a lead for them.

Dont know when I’ll send those stories. I’ve felt too bad to type them.

Cheers, Tarfunk

Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, letter to Maryat Lee, July 28, 1964, Georgia (O’Connor died on August 3, 1964, of complications from lupus)

It’s a very solemn moment, coming to the end of a journal that I know was ended by death. Although the person writing it doesn’t infuse the words with special meaning, they seem to take on power from being the last.

For me, these entries serve as reminders to be grateful for my ordinary life, for the unremarkable routine that might be cut off at any moment.

This kind of memento mori may seem a bit grim — but I find it very helpful. I always struggle to remember how thankful I am for my everyday life, and this helps.

How about you? What practices help you to remember to be grateful for your ordinary day?

What John Gregory Dunne Said on the Night Before He Died.

In Joan Didion’s haunting memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, she recounts her experiences in the year after her husband John Gregory Dunne died, and the year her daughter Quintana died.

She writes that the night Dunne died, or the night before:

“‘He said that his current piece in The New York Review, a review of Gavin Lambert’s biography of Natalie Wood, was worthless… Why did I waste time on a piece about Natalie Wood,’ he said.

It would be impossible to weigh every decision against the test: “If I die tomorrow, will I be glad I took the time to complete this task?” On the other hand, it’s a question worth keeping mind, always.

The days are long, but the years are short.

Sidenote: Look closely at the jacket of The Year of Magical Thinking. Notice anything? The word J O H N is spelled out in ghostly letters.

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“When My Mother Died, She Basically Told Me To Try to Enjoy My Life More.”

Happiness interview: Meghan O’Rourke.

Meghan O’Rourke is a writer in many incarnations — an essayist, poet, critic, and editor. I got to know Meghan during the time that this blog appeared on Slate , and I was very eager to get my hands on her new book.

The Long Goodbye is a memoir of her mother’s death from cancer in 2008, at the age of 55, when Meghan was 32 years old. Going through great unhappiness is one of the best, and most difficult, teachers of happiness, so I was very interested to hear what Meghan had to say.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Meghan: Taking a walk. I used to run a lot, and that always made me happier (even if I was unhappy lacing up my shoes to do it). But I tore the cartilage in my right hip and need surgery – so I can’t run anymore. The injury happened about 9 months after my mother died, and running had been one of my ways of dealing. This has been a real challenge. But I realized that I could walk instead, and over time I’ve come to see that slowing down and taking things in – rather than running through them like a linebacker – might be good for me.

Generally, reading a good book makes me happy. Reading Anne of Green Gables or T. H. White’s The Once and Future King always is great, and I return to them when I’m particularly low. And learning does too. There is a beautiful passage in The Book of Merlyn, the prequel to The Once and Future King, about this, and after my mother died it was a kind of lifeline for me:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewer of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it.”

[I love that passage, too! In fact, I quoted it here two years ago.]

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I guess that it comes and goes. When I’m unhappy, I know that the worst part of it will pass if I just stick it out; I can survive it. At the same time – and this is more complicated, and may seem to contradict what I just said – I have a stronger sense that certain kinds of pain do stay with us and shape us profoundly. My mother’s death on Christmas Day 2008 taught me that. The shaping isn’t all for ill, though it can be challenging to remember that.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Not sleeping enough. Not exercising. Obvious things. One that’s less obvious, to me at least: I can be a workaholic. Sometimes I look up, feeling lonely, and realize I haven’t seen my friends or gotten out of the house for a few days. Not seeing people always makes me feel down, even though I sometimes think it will feel good to just hole up and be quiet.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself that “There is only love.”)
My mother used to say, “Lighten up, Meg,” when I got uptight about little things. It was her way of saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” She knew that I was anxious, and a little obsessive, and that sometimes I let the world seem darker than it needed to. Now that she’s gone, I say that to myself – usually when fretting that I said the wrong thing to so-and-so, or made the wrong call about something at work, or some such. Or when I wanted to do x and instead got stuck doing y – but it really doesn’t matter.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
Sweating the small stuff; not taking time to feel grateful. I know these are things you talk about a lot on your blog – but actively taking the time to feel grateful can change your day radically. After my mother’s death the only way I got through the worst months of grieving was in trying to identify beauty. It sounds corny, and I probably would have laughed at myself for this once upon a time, but I would make myself try to find several beautiful things in the day and not let myself spiral into anxiety that they might someday disappear.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I do work on being happier. When my mother died, she basically told me to try to enjoy my life more. So now I take more care with boring things – like trying to go to bed at the same time, eat well, exercise a little every day. I try to notice when something feels bad, or spending time with someone leaves me feeling deflated. And I tell myself most of the things that I get worried about truly don’t matter. I have a fairly hokey routine of trying to remind myself of the largeness of the universe and the minuteness of my place in it.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Great question. I once moved to a bigger apartment in a remoter location thinking that the space would make me happier. In fact, I missed feeling in the thick of things – and preferred having a smaller place to feeling lonely.

The real surprise though has been what happened to me after my mother died: I remember feeling that nothing good could ever happen again, that her death was a painful force of ill in my life. But two and a half years on I can see that there were things that have come out of it that have helped me – I learned to relax a bit, paradoxically, because the thing I was most frightened of happened, and I survived. In a strange way, it has made me more grateful, and I think a lot of stuff is much funnier than I used to. (Particularly my own failures and pretensions.) In a sense, I’m so grateful not to be in the kind of pain I was right after she died that lots of little things seem pretty extraordinary – and big things, too, like the fact that loss can connect you to other people who have suffered. Ironically, I made friends with people because I was grieving and they came forward to help – and it forced us into a kind of closeness we might not otherwise have had.

* I’m now officially obsessed with the sense of smell, so was intrigued by this post, Curious about…Sillage on the terrific site The Curiosity Chronicles. I’d never heard the wonderful term “sillage,” which is French for “wake” (as in the wake left by a boat) and is also used to describe how a perfume leaves behind its scent.

* Father’s Day is coming soon! (June 19 in the U.S., UK, and Canada.) For your consideration…The Happiness Project (can’t resist mentioning: #1 New York Times bestseller). To make a book gift more special, perhaps you’d like a signed, personalized bookplate — or for an ebook or audio book, perhaps you’d like a signed, personalized signature card, with Paradoxes of Happiness on the back. If so, email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com. Feel free to ask for as many as you’d like, for yourself or for a gift; I’ll mail anywhere in the world; they’re free — and please remember to include your mailing address.

“I Place a High Value on These Black Market Pearls of Wisdom.”

Happiness interview: Natalie Taylor.

Natalie Taylor has written a wonderful, moving memoir, Signs of Life. When she was 24 years old and five-months pregnant, Natalie’s husband Josh died in a skateboarding accident, and her book describes what she went through over the next few years.

I really loved this book. One of my happiness-project resolutions is to Read memoirs of catastrophe, and out of her experience, Natalie was able to convey some very profound insights into the nature of love and happiness.

I also loved this book for another reason. As an ardent supporter of organ donation, I was very moved to read how her family handled the issue: without a second thought. “Josh donates seven organs,” Natalie wrote. Tears welled up in my eyes when I read that.

Gretchen: Becoming a widow is an enormous happiness challenge. How did you meet it?
Natalie: A few days after losing my husband, I vividly remember sitting in the passenger’s seat of my sister’s car telling her I could never be happy again. Three and a half years later, I don’t feel that way at all. I’m not even quite sure how or when it happened. I just know that at the time, I was desperate not to be destroyed by grief, not just for me, but for my son. So, I tried everything. I saw a psychologist, I went to spousal grief group, I went to a single mom’s group, I forced myself to go through pictures, I wrote, I read, I acknowledged anniversaries, and as much as I faked it in front of other people (man, did I get good at that), I never lied to myself. Part of me knew I needed to get in the fight early and often or else the grief could morph into a very dangerous monster. It’s not to say I’m on cloud nine everyday, but the pain of the immediate grief is like the pain of labor—you how bad it hurt, but the intensity of the moment is a memory of the past.

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Two things: 1. Playing with my son. A lot of times I get so wrapped up in making dinner and doing laundry that I forget to slow down and just play. The best is when I turn my phone off, turn the radio off, turn the oven off and just put 100% of myself into pretending to be Han Solo.

2. Exercise. I do this thing called CrossFit where it’s a one-hour class that usually leaves me crumpled up on the floor gasping for air feeling like I am going to die. It’s awesome. But more than the workout itself, I love the people at my gym. The combination of getting stronger and having a fun community of people is totally addicting.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I’m pretty sure it’s called “eating your feelings.” I’m not sure if this happens to anyone else, but when I am full of mixed emotions, I will walk into my kitchen and have sort of a black out moment and then the next thing I know there are cookie crumbs all over the counter. I can tell you from experience, this does not make me happier, but shamefully, I do it repeatedly.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
In the midst of my grief, a wise person told me, “you are only visiting this place.” Sometimes life has us feeling like we are stuck in a bad place forever. In my book I talk a lot about not just my bad place, but how I got out—sometimes I was gently carried by those who loved me, sometimes I was dragged by my collar, and other times I clawed my way out myself. I came to realize that no matter how dark life got, I did not have to stay there forever. Now when I have a hard day, I remind myself that it’s a visit, not a permanent residence.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
I love being around people who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. I remember before my husband’s viewing, my best friend, Katie, who had lost her mom three years earlier, told me that people were going to say a lot of stupid things to me at the viewing about why Josh died. She said, “I am handing you an invisible stack of STFU cards” which stood for “Shut the F@#& Up” and she told me when people say things that I don’t care to hear, I can imagine handing them one of my cards. Katie’s honest and humorous approach has gotten me through a lot.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I keep my ear to the ground for the little tricks on leading a happier life. The Monday after Easter, Anne, a coworker of mine with four little kids, told me she was always overwhelmed with holidays, but this year she took the advice of another mom whose kids are older now. Anne told me before her relatives and in-laws came over for brunch, she took a shot of tequila. She said it actually really helped. I’m not advocating for drunk Easter Sundays, I’m just saying, I place a high value on these black market pearls of wisdom. It’s usually the best advice.

* Sign up for the Moment of Happiness, and every weekday morning, you’ll get a happiness quotation in your email inbox. Sign up here, or email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com.