When I was 35 years old, my husband died, and I entered the most difficult period of my life. One dark day, amid the sadness, loneliness, anger, pain and emptiness, a tiny stream of light filtered into my heart. It came in the form of an elk.
I’m fortunate to live in an area where elk are prevalent, yet to this day, every sighting–always unexpected–takes my breath away. That is exactly what happened that day so long ago, and I felt joy for the first time since my husband had passed. That one exquisitely simple moment marked the beginning of my healing.
When it happened, I worried. Did feeling joyful mean that I was forgetting my husband? Was it too soon to feel happy? No and no. The moment was a glimpse of promise that I would be okay in my own time. It was also a reminder that grief and joy can coexist.
I remember those lessons now in this time that feels so dark. We are collectively grieving, each of us in our own way and in our own time. We may find ourselves at times feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry, exhausted, anxious or any number of other feelings. We may have days when we feel nothing at all. And that’s okay. But in the midst of whatever we are feeling, I pray that we are not afraid to also feel joyful.
I believe this time we’re living in is teaching us (maybe forcing us) to let go. We are seeing some old paradigms begin to crack, things like racism, sexism and ill-treatment of our earth. And good riddance! But in this collective dismantling, many of us are also being asked to personally let go—of people we love, of careers, of ideas we’ve held, of big dreams—and that kind of letting go hurts, a lot.
Letting go, and the natural grieving that occurs with it, is long, hard work. And what comes after, the rebirth and the rebuilding, also requires perseverance. If we don’t allow joy to show us where the healing light is, we may get swamped. And we can’t afford to get sidelined. There is too much work to do!
Like grief, joy is personal. It can come in many forms, like beauty, play, connection, imagination, laughter or even breath. It can also come as rest. But what feels joyful to me may seem dreadful to you. You might be able to find joy in the midst of heartbreak, but it may take me a while longer. Can we find a way to hold space for one another’s unique ways to comingle grief and joy?
As I was writing these words, I felt inspired to look up the spirit-animal meaning of the elk, I and found several sources noting that elk teaches us about strength, stamina, endurance and pacing oneself for the long haul. Perhaps that elk I saw many years ago appeared in order to teach me that joy would be an ally as I built those qualities in myself. Perhaps that’s what elk is trying to tell us now.