How to celebrate happy moments while grieving

How to celebrate happy moments while grieving


Today is Prince Harry’s birthday.

While normally a day for celebrating, the mood is sombre and we’re still in the official mourning period to honour the death of the Queen – though, being her grandson, that pain is likely to continue beyond her upcoming state funeral.

So what’s appropriate at a time like this?

When you come up against something worth celebrating while you’re grieving, how do you navigate the two conflicting dynamics?

Alexandra Derwen, a specialist in grief, says: ‘Human emotions are complex: “happy” and “sad” are not two opposites; they can coexist in the same space.

‘Grief is essentially love – our society so often associates grief as being negative but it is part and parcel of being alive, being human and of loving.

‘So the nuances of human emotions get mixed up in grief. It’s very possible to feel sad and happy at the same time; it’s what we call “bittersweet”.

‘To celebrate being alive on your birthday while feeling the reality of death and loss at the same time go hand in hand.

‘A death in the family reminds us we will all die and this can bring a bittersweet gratitude for our life forward.’

It’s completely possible for both grief and happiness to co-exist.

How to acknowledge the dead on a birthday

Alexandra says: ‘When someone has recently died and a “happy” occasion is happening then I would acknowledge the dead person with a photo, a candle, eating a slice of cake in their honour – doing something they would have loved to do.’

While doing this, allow yourself to feel however you need to.

Understanding how you feel

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Dipti Tait, grief therapist and author of Planet Grief says we can channel a bittersweet state called saudade, which is a feeling of being appropriately melancholic, but not allowing the melancholy to drag you down.

She explains: ‘For example, when we attend funerals – we are in a state of saudade, whereby the service is usually sombre and gives us a safe space to express our deepest felt emotions while sobbing tears of grief.

‘Then there is the wake or celebration of life afterwards, where we can let our hair and guard down and the atmosphere is generally lighter and there may be laughter which uplifts us again.

‘Being saudade is an appropriate way to mark sadness and happiness equally.’

To help process grief authentically, we need to also bring in feelings of joy, calm, contemplation, reflection and celebration – these all serve to balance the depths of feeling grief brings about.

‘This balance will help us grieve appropriately and reduce the feeling of emotional overwhelm,’ she adds.

‘Everyone deals with their own grief differently. Some people need to be with other people around them for comfort and reassurance, and others are very much more private in their grief affairs.

‘It’s good to know what your preferences are, and sometimes you will only find out when you are in the situation.’

Combatting guilt

First ask yourself, would the person that’s passed want you to feel guilt for continuing with other events in your life? Probably not.

Maria Bailey, founder of Grief Specialists, says: ‘Everyone’s grief is unique to them and to the relationship they had with the person who has died, so there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to marking a happy occasion when you’re in mourning.’

It’s common for thoughts around what you ‘should’ be feeling to enter the mind.

‘Some may wish to distract themselves with something happy, while others might struggle to get out of bed and function, and their birthdays feel insignificant,’ Maria adds.

‘For Prince Harry, he is very much in the spotlight at the moment and there would be an expectation of him to carry on mourning. Any level of celebration, you would assume, would be carried out behind closed doors.

‘It is also his first birthday without his beloved grandmother. “Firsts” can be particularly difficult.’

When continuing on with life, guilt may start to creep in.

Maria warns you shouldn’t be influenced by what others think is appropriate, as it is so individual – whether that’s to go out or withdraw.

Dipti says: ‘Guilt is very much part of the grieving process, and it is very important to remember that although guilt is a grief state, it is not necessarily a truth.’

No right or wrong

If you aren’t sure of what you can emotionally handle, one idea is to scale plans back, rather than cancel them completely – if you want to, that is.

Dipti says: ‘Some people need the energy of others around them, and some people need to be in the quiet, and then some people need both.

‘It is important to know that this is a normal state of grieving, and it will pass.’

These are some key tips to keep in mind when navigating this situation.

How to cope when going ahead with a celebration while grieving

  • Firmly put boundaries in place with anyone who tries to make you feel guilty.
  • Tell the people involved you are grieving if they don’t know. If they are aware of what is going on with you, this will feel like a relief to you – because you don’t have to pretend to be okay.
  • Have a back-up plan, so that if it all gets too much, you can easily get home and have the support you need. This will help calm any anxiety.
  • Ensure trusted friends are around who can help.
  • Don’t drink much alcohol as this can making managing emotions harder.
  • Be ‘selfish’ by ensuring you’re putting your needs first.

Maria adds: ‘Cancelling any plans completely can be a good idea if you need a bit of space from others, or you don’t feel up to celebrating.

‘However, it can also feel isolating, and it’s not something I’d recommend on an ongoing basis.

‘One of the best things we can do when we’re grieving is to be with others.’

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