Author: Carlene Cross
“I regret to inform you…” the chaplain began.
In an instant, my life fell apart on July 13, 2008. I was sucked into blackness. Panic engulfed me in waves, blinding me and destroying all logical thinking. I ran to a picture of Jason holding an Afghan child and hugged it to my chest. A world without my son could never be real. It was unimaginable.
For months, my face was bloodless; shadows formed beneath my eyes like bruised fruit. I was taking medication and sleeping longer hours, but I was still weary to the bone.
I couldn’t concentrate on what anyone was saying. But it didn’t matter. Everyone seemed so uninteresting, and every conversation felt pointless.
One night, as I studied the ghoul in the mirror, I heard Jason’s voice.
“Come on, Mom, this is not the woman who raised me. Get your butt up and start living again.”
Suddenly, I realized I needed to honor my son’s life. He was part of a historic elite – men and women who embody sacrifice, loyalty and service to country. The most respectful thing I could do was to find joy again.
Learning to be Joyful Again
I began to study the latest research and found that academia, medicine, spirituality and literature all agreed that seven basic principles invigorate joy: practicing gratitude, living in the moment, letting go, loving yourself, connecting to others, forgiving and having compassion.
I adopted these qualities into my own life as non-negotiable habits, like brushing my teeth.
Setting out to discover what makes people joyful, researcher and psychology professor Dr. Fred Luskin found living with gratefulness to be one of the most important attributes of a happy life. As he puts it, “Become religiously, relentlessly grateful, constantly reminding yourself of what you have.”
Besides the emotional boost, research also reveals that these “gratefulness moments” reboot our physical health. Our heart rates go down and our nervous system takes a rest.
Living in the Moment
Be aware of what is happening now. Luskin tells students of his Stanford Forgiveness Project to slow down and enjoy each moment. Connect to their breath. Inhale and exhale slowly. Eat food with delight and intention instead of devouring it. Live in the present, with purpose.
How can we be happy in a world where everything changes and nothing lasts? We must find peace with the fact that all will pass away. Researchers claim that releasing the fantasy that life will always be controllable, is an important step to happiness.
Research has found that those obsessed with their looks are rarely happy. However, people who work at staying healthy and are satisfied with their appearance are more joyful. Doing some form of physical movement, like yoga, dance or walking, a few times a week releases hormones, increases metabolism and helps people feel more energized and joyful.
I began to send messages of kindness to myself: “I am grateful my body is a strong vehicle through this life. It is a miracle and I honor it.” I began to jog again, practice yoga and garden. As I became active, I could feel the physical sadness lodged in my chest start to loosen.
Connecting with Others
Happy people tend to trust others and define the world in a non-adversarial way. If we give love without expectations, as much as we reasonably can, we will thrive. And those who find a community to share this comradery nurture even more joyfulness.
I began to reach out. I attended the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar in Washington, D.C., and met other surviving military families. Today, I still call and speak with them often. They are people who, even without words, understand and encourage my inner peace.
Authorities on forgiveness claim that healthy forgiveness is making a choice to release grievances for your own health, exercising your personal power and choosing to reclaim your life and your energy.
Studies found that forgiveness can lead to less anxiety, stress and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, a stronger immune system, improved heart health, higher self-esteem, healthier relationships and greater spiritual and psychological well-being.
Forgiveness is not the approval of wrongdoing or forcing yourself to reconcile with the person who hurt you. It’s not forgetting or minimizing what happened or skipping the process of grief.
Researchers claim that developing a kind, loving heart may be one of the most important things to our happiness. The Dalai Lama says, “My religion is kindness.” One of Jesus’ main admonitions was to “love one another,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Studies found that people who are kind are much happier. The kindness of saying hello to people, volunteering and giving back can cultivate kindness.
I realized I possess the power to choose joy. I will always miss my son, but I am no longer paralyzed by his death. Several weeks ago, while rummaging through the closet, I caught sight of an old video taken in the 1980s of him and his sisters growing up. Years ago, I would have panicked at such a gust of memory. But this time, as images of my children lit up the darkened room, infinite love rose in my chest. As I watched Jason at ages 2, 5, and 8, grief was replaced with joy for the 25 years his boundless spirit filled my life. I felt his love surround me.
Exercising these principles helped me regain happiness and live with purpose again. They opened my heart to other exciting possibilities. Last year I met an incredible man, fell in love and, after 25 years of being single, I remarried.
In many ways, I have returned to the woman who raised my son – for my own sake, but also to honor his memory. It’s what he would expect of me.
From the pen of…
Carlene Cross, MA, is the author of three nonfiction books, including “The Undying West and Fleeing Fundamentalism.” Her new book, “The Hero’s Journey: A Handbook for Healing,” follows her path of forgiveness and acceptance after the death of her son in Afghanistan. Carlene teaches writing classes and gives "Reclaiming Joy" seminars.