Joyful Changes Come With Loss

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I sobbed so hard I could barely see the road as I drove the last truckload of stuff across town. We had just bought a house and were moving out of our first apartment. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to move—our apartment was tiny with barely functioning appliances and unpleasant neighbors.

I was so relieved to have our frustrating house search come to an end. I was happy to have more space and not share walls. I was curious to explore a new neighborhood.

And yet, there was a lot to say goodbye to as well. I would never again set foot in the apartment we came home to as newlyweds. Our new house was near the city walking trails, but I would miss having a park right across the street. Even though I didn’t want to live in that apartment anymore, it’s hard to walk away from a place filled with memories.

Something I’m learning over and over is that even the most joyful change comes with a loss of what was.

Maybe you finally got the promotion you worked so hard for…but miss the easy camaraderie you used to have with your coworkers before you were their boss.

Or maybe you are head over heels for your new baby and love seeing your partner grow into the role of parent…but miss the quiet evenings and spur of the moment adventures you had when it was just the two of you.

Maybe you finally splurged on some new furniture…but you miss the familiar feel of the hideous chair that you rescued from the dumpster three apartments ago.

Or maybe you’ve just moved out on your own and are reveling in your independence…but you also miss living with established boundaries.

None of that means that the change isn’t wonderful. Nor does it mean there is something wrong with you if you feel anything besides happy. We tend to expect that good changes will make us happy and bad changes will make us angry, scared, or sad.

If our emotions don’t match what’s expected it’s easy to start feeling guilty. We think that if we’re sad it means we must not be happy…and we should be. But as humans we are capable of a complex emotional experience. We can feel happy and sad and scared and excited all at the same time. Feeling sad about what you’re losing doesn’t mean you’re any less happy about what you’ve gained.

Actually, it’s hard to fully celebrate the change unless we deal with the loss. As Brené Brown writes in Daring Greatly, “We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” When we try to feel only what we think we should feel we not only miss out on the fullness of the experience, but we also make it harder to wholly feel our excitement and joy.

No matter how happy I was, I’m glad I let my tears flow freely on moving day. Without allowing myself to grieve what I was losing, I might not have been able to enjoy my new house as fully—perhaps without even understanding why.

But acknowledging all sides of a change isn’t something I always remember to do. Sometimes I walk around day after day wondering what’s wrong with me when I’m fighting back tears in response to a joyful change. The harder I try to reason with myself that I shouldn’t be sad, the more overwhelming the sadness becomes.

But that sadness doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. It simply means that no matter how glad I am about the change, I may also need to grieve for what was. Trying to ignore my sadness won’t make it go away, but it might get in the way of the things I really do want to feel.

Now this isn’t to say that all changes will leave us in tears. Sometimes what isn’t there anymore just is not something we feel strongly about. Or it might be that a simple acknowledgment of the way things were is enough. But there are also times when we need to give ourselves space to really accept and express the things we are losing before we can be free to enjoy the happy part of the change—even alongside the sadness.

Think of a joyful change in your life. It can be past, current, or future. Sit quietly for a few minutes and notice what feelings come up for you. Is there something you will be sad to lose? I’d invite you to try a short writing exercise using the following prompt: I am happy (excited, relieved, etc) about ________. I am also sad (scared, angry, anxious, etc) because ________. Write as much or little as you need to get clear on how this change impacts you.

What did you learn about your experience of this change? How does that knowledge affect how you will respond?