The Grief-Joy Spiral

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Do joy and grief share something essential in common? And by cutting out one, do we end up cutting ourselves off from the other?

Grief and joy sound like polar opposites. Grief, understood as the process of surviving loss, is certainly a long process involving many different phases, including classically distinguished ones like shock, fury, bargaining with fate and finally some kind of acceptance or integration of the loss. These phases tend to repeat, overlap and circle each other rather than proceeding in smooth, linear fashion. It can seem all-pervading and endless. In a sense it never does finish. Joy is more of a fleeting feeling, and one which feels very different from loss and grief.

In its essence, grief is a terrible, rending pain, which doesn’t let up, a confrontation with something which is absolutely unacceptable, unthinkable, unbearable. It feels as if we can’t survive it.

Joy, in its essence, is fleeting and ecstatic. So what is the connection? Both joy and grief jolt us out of our everyday trance. They can also sometimes share a certain pattern of appearance, a sudden onset, without apparent reason. Stronger than moods, they can suddenly seem to attack, triggered by associations, memories. Another common factor is loss of control: once grief or joy hits, you can’t really talk yourself out of it the way you might be able to with everyday happiness or sadness. You can’t talk yourself into feeling grief or joy either. If you don’t feel grief after a loss, you don’t feel it. If you don’t feel joy after a birth, you don’t feel it. It’s inarguable. It just is.

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In this sense, there is something almost transcendent about both grief and joy. We’re catapulted — be it for a second, or with grief often a lot longer than that, an eternity longer than that — out of everyday conditions. There’s nothing we can do or say really to alter this. It’s an inescapable part of being alive right now at this minute. Ego and identity are ignominiously stripped away. There’s just this — which sounds very Zen. Maybe feeling joy and grief at exactly the same time in equal measure is something akin to an enlightenment experience, an awakening. A realisation that there is just this — completely transient, senseless and unsupported — is both beautiful and terrible. Personally I can remember some moments when in the midst of grief I noticed something — a colour, a texture, a sound — with a particularly sharpened awareness, which, although doubtless caused by the effects of the brain-state of shock and the chemicals being produced and pumped around my body, nonetheless seemed to me extraordinarily beautiful. I remember some of these things 30 years on.

Joy and grief normally arrive in very different sets of circumstances. It’s been my experience though, both personally and professionally as I help others, that extended periods and/or intense experiences of grief can lead to an increased capacity for joy and vice versa. There’s an increased ability — which we usually didn’t and wouldn’t choose — to experience life full-on, within its whole context. Being unable to love someone without the awareness that at some point you will lose them makes the experience of that love even more intense, nearer to the sphere of joy than comfort, all the deeper for being tinged with grief already. Sometimes it’s only in the intensity of grief after losing someone, that we can become aware of just how good the good moments with them had been.

It can seem easier to protect yourself from potential grief, say by avoiding intimate relationships, but this can also inadvertently spoil your chances of experiencing true joy. The idea that people should remain comfortable and that strong feelings are a problem we need to ‘do something about’, whether through medication or mindfulness, seems to have gained a life of its own. While people who suffer serious mood swings and those in the throes of bereavement can use all the help they can get to gain a level of comfort and safety that enables them to get on with their lives, these are special cases.

The grief and joy of just (just!) being alive tend to circle each other, almost as if they are shadowing one another, appearing at different moments yet somehow part of the same movement, connected to each other, like a spiral. The grief/joy spiral is an integral part of life, and I know for myself that if I try to avoid it or dampen it down, I’m missing out.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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