I nearly skipped down the big steps leading to the front of the venue. I was laughing and making jokes with a friend, giddy with excitement that this day—the wedding day of my dear friends—was finally here. A few members of the wedding party sat in the seats that would soon be taken by friends and family. I continued laughing lightheartedly, about to greet the small group with a hearty hello before suddenly noticing their tears and somber tone. Immediately, I felt snapped back to the reality of this day: We are celebrating a marriage, and we are mourning a life.
For years, I tried to compare grief and joy to oil and water. They just don’t mix. After all, wouldn’t life be easier if our feelings and experiences were simple and compartmentalized? Yes, probably, but here’s what I’ve learned: Oil and water may never mix, but grief and joy have to. They must, if we’re living authentic, full-bodied lives.
That day, just a few weeks ago, when we celebrated a marriage and mourned a life was one of the most tangible experiences of grief and joy I have ever known. This was evident as I found the quiet group from the wedding party—all members of the groom’s family—in tears shortly before the ceremony began. Eleven months earlier, the groom’s younger brother passed away in a tragic accident. His absence at this event seemed to fill every inch of the venue.
The joy we felt at these two people getting married was real—there was laughter, dancing, cheering, and happy tears. And the grief? That was real, too. A part of the family was missing. He should have been there. There were moments of quiet, there was ache, and there were sad tears. Sometimes I couldn’t differentiate the sad tears from the happy tears. Maybe I didn’t need to.
What I do know is that this family was doing something right. They allowed their grief a seat at the wedding. Their brother’s name was rarely spoken on that day, but it didn’t need to be—we acknowledged him in his signature red bandana that was seen throughout the decor, and in the open spot reserved for him in the wedding party. Nobody pretended like this day was only joyful, because grief can sit alongside the joy without robbing us of the happy. It has to, if we ever want to feel deep joy while honoring what has been lost. This brother and son would not go unacknowledged just because grief is hard. His absence would be acknowledged because ignoring it is harder.
There’s no way to totally erase grief. That’s a part of the human experience. It helps, though, when we let the grief have some space. Let her breathe a little. If you try to ball it up and shove it under the rug, you’ll just keep tripping over it—maybe not immediately, it might be years later, but it will resurface and it will return stronger than ever.
When we let grief have its place, it can actually enrich our lives. That sounds so backwards, but I think of it like a multilayered cake. Sure, a tiny, single-layered chocolate cake is fine; I mean, I’ll take it. But what if we added in layers of raspberry filling or chocolate mousse or salted caramel? Doesn’t that sound so much better than a thin and lonely little layer of chocolate cake? It requires more work and resources, but for added layers, I’ll take it.
The interlinking of grief and joy makes life multi-layered. They do not exist very far apart from one another; in fact, they’re bumping right into each other for most of our lives. The presence of grief does not mean there can be no joy (and vice versa); actually, I believe it is in acknowledging and feeling grief that will allow us to feel a deeper sense of joy. That wedding with the abundance of happy and sad tears—it was like the most richly layered cake imaginable.
There’s a well-known quote that says, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” What? NO. THIS IS CRAZY. YOU CAN DEFINITELY CRY. God is an infinite Being who created the actual universe. I have to believe that He didn’t slack off and create an entire human race that is capable of only experiencing one emotion at a time. You can cry because it’s over and smile because it happened! We are able to withstand such an emotional dichotomy.
What does this mean for us? It means we allow for moments of silence and ache in the midst of a genuinely joyful celebration. It means we let the sad and happy tears flow, even if they get all mixed up with one another. It means we celebrate our friend’s gain while feeling our loss, or we give our child space to celebrate a new beginning while feeling sad that something is ending.
The blending of grief and joy is real for all of us. It’s up to us to choose to acknowledge and experience the layers of emotions so many events create in us. Like taking the time to build a layered cake, this is the more difficult way of life. But—and I would not steer you wrong here—I promise you it is the richer, fuller, more worthwhile life.
This piece is dedicated to my friends—the newlyweds—and their families. Thank you for showing us how to live in the layers.