Paula Becker and I met when we both had books coming out, in the fall of 2019. My book of essays, ENOUGH, was published a couple of weeks after her searing memoir, A House on Stilts: Mothering in the Age of Opioid Addiction. We were in a little library in Pike Place Market, posing for this photo in Seattle Magazine, when we started talking. Instantly, we went deep, skipping the small talk, looking at each other directly, and learning each other’s grief and joys both.
Paula’s memoir is a far cry from the other book of hers publishing only a month before it — Looking for Betty MacDonald, a detailed and endearing memoir of the much-loved writer. (Betty MacDonald lived on Vashon long before I did. I’ve always felt an affinity for her writing too.) Trying to promote both books seemed impossible to me. But Paula knows how to do the impossible, somehow.
Paula’s son Hunter, whose struggles with opioid addiction she detailed in A House on Stilts, died in 2017. He was run over by a Greyhound bus in Oregon, in a negligent and preventable accident. Somehow she managed to finish this incredible memoir of Hunter’s struggles and her family’s struggles, after her son died.
I’ll never forget her book.
Paula has published another book, a powerful, brief book called A Little Book of Self-Care for Those Who Grieve. This book is a gift. When Paula wrote to say she was coming to Vashon for the day, I asked if we could meet for coffee and talk about the relationship between grief and joy.
What are some of your joys right now?
I feel like my biggest joy right now is being present in the moment. And I feel like a practice that I have tried to take on, not just during COVID, but since going through the experience of being bereaved. One of the experiences that’s steadying and grounding for me is to not to go too far ahead, not too far behind, but just to notice where I am, in the present.
How did you learn to do that?
Well, I don’t think I have learned. I think I’m learning.
How did you start doing that?
I started trying to do this during a very difficult time in my life. There were about 10 years when my oldest son, Hunter, was struggling with drug addiction, opioid addiction. And that path was very chaotic for our family. And during that time, just trying to keep my balance, and trying to maintain balance for my other kids? I found that trying to stay in the present moment was a good way to do that.
I couldn’t control the future. The past had passed. And it’s tempting to judge ourselves for the past, but what I found out during that time of Hunter’s addiction is that judgment isn’t helpful. Judgment took me out of the present moment.
The only thing I could do is to keep myself to the present moment. And notice. Noticing is such a gift. And that gives me joy, realizing that I can notice things. They’re not always things you love. But, to really be real with life, and not fight that moment? It’s really important.
And some people never feel that. They don’t want to experience the discomfort of the moment. Noticing the real truth of who we are, in this moment — it’s a gift.
Yes. There’s a lot of this society that says we should forget that skill. All children have the ability to notice. They do notice. And then, slowly over time, we are encouraged to forget that habit.
This is so fundamental to my concept of joy. I know that everyone is capable of joy. Look at every baby in the world. About 4 to 6 months old, they discover their feet. And they wave around in the air. They’re so excited by their own feet that they don’t need us at all. Watch a baby holding their toes and you see joy. We just lose it.
And that satisfaction. What makes them happy is the great satisfaction of the tactile experience. You’re grabbing something you haven’t touched before. Watch that and you understand that joy is like that for all of us, at any time. Grab something, notice something you haven’t before, and you can be filled with delight. It isn’t about reaching the mountaintop. It’s about being in the moment.
This may be a hard question to answer. What does it feel like to be in the moment?
You know, it feels like noticing. Tactile things. This table is cold and smooth, a little like marble. It’s about noticing what we see. The Vashon Bookshop is across the street from this coffee shop. The sign, the colors of it, the brightness inside the store. I try to bring that to every step that I take in my life, that being present. It doesn’t happen all the time. I get caught up in things all the time, just like everyone else. But I think of it as a practice.
I practice doing this every chance I have.
None of it is like achievement. Because that requires a goal. And then you tell yourself, “Oh, I crossed the finish line!” There is no finish line. It’s just the here and now. That really is all we have. When we start thinking about life that way, and we have people here who love us, then we can choose to notice.
Of course, I balance that with the fact I’m a total list maker. Every day I have a to-do list. But I take joy in making that list, with beautiful ink, rubber stamps, and doing some watercolor on it. Even though it says generally the same thing every day — stretch; practice the piano — it’s a way for me to be present even with that list of what I’m going to do the next day.
That makes me joyful, to sit down and make my list the night before.
That’s wonderful. I write a list the night before now too. And I actually make joy lists, where I put me first on the list, then fill in three things I’m going to do for myself, and my family and community, before I start thinking about work. I think you can only get about 9 things a day done anyway. But it reminds me to do the activities that will give me joy, and a give myself a chance to rest.
And those are the things that are easy to fall away, when we’re focused on productivity and future thoughts. They fall away.
That’s why I put READ on my list for the day. The reading I do for work is wonderful. But reading for pleasure? That’s a very joyful experience for me.
All during COVID, I’ve put LEARNING TIME at 11 am on my schedule. I’m a voracious learner. And that gave me permission to read, instead of always answering emails or trying to do more and more. Reading in bed is a surefire way to go to sleep. Doing this during the day? It feels decadent.
Yes. And we don’t have to call it anything else. Reading is building us. That moment of enjoyment is building us! Whatever it is we’re reading — that transportive story or that moving mystery — it’s building who we are.
And that’s our work on this planet.
Yes. That’s our work. To understand our own minds better so we can better understand other people.
Let’s talk about grief and joy. They seem to be complete opposites, right? But you and I agree — they aren’t.
I think a person who has very recently been bereaved? The only joy they can access is also deeply tinged with sadness, because that person who brought them so much joy is now lost. The joy is poignant. And it’s also painful.
People don’t often focus on the fact that joy can be really painful. That’s a thing that people don’t often focus on. When you’ve lost someone you love, to expect yourself to be unhappy is unrealistic. And unprofitable.
But you do have to allow yourself to remember joyful experiences, even if that person isn’t there anymore. It’s profound. And really important.
Going through the process of getting my bereavement farther and farther back in time is really interesting. I have more ability to notice other things that bring me joy in my life. My loss has become the big container of my life. But even within this container, I have moments of this day, the people I’m with — I can recognize moments of joy now.
I think that it’s very important that people not feel guilty for recognizing joy. It’s okay, in the moment, to notice how good that coffee tastes. I think a lot of people who are mourning feel like they shouldn’t be able to notice how good the coffee is when the person they love will never taste coffee again. For me, that doesn’t serve the process of being present. It doesn’t help. In my opinion, we should just strive to do things that help us.
One of the things I’ve noticed — and people may not think about this — but allowing yourself to be in that moment of grief fully, completely, and not putting guard rails on it. Feeling grief fully and deeply? There’s a kind of joy to that.
Yes. It’s a moment of being able to fully sit with that moment. It’s not easy. At all. But to not fight this difficult thing that’s happened. This tragic thing that’s happened. You can’t make it not happen.
And that’s the confusion of early grief. There’s the part of us that wants to magically make that thing un-happen.
As we sink into the experience, we learn — on a cellular level — that this thing that has happened? It is. It just is. We have to be able to sit with that and accept it. We have to.
It’s the same as the birth of your children too, in reverse. Your kids — especially your first kid — is born and you are immediately changed. But it takes a while to recognize how fully you have been changed.
It’s a door that you can only go through in one direction. Birth is that way. Death is that way. There’s only one way to go through that door on this planet. That’s all we have. That’s all I know.
Your book is so beautiful. I think everyone who is grieving should read it. And absorb it, really. What has been the joy for you of having this book in the world?
The joy of having A Little Book of Self-Care for Those Who Grieve in the world is that I felt so strongly, when my son Hunter died, that the books I was finding and given about grief? There were too many words in them. My eyes hurt so much from crying and being in that grief that I couldn’t take in all those words. And so, for the first time in my life, a book couldn’t help me.
And so, I wanted this book to be almost a picture book for grievers of all ages. The words were simple, just a few to the page. Each page would be a small thought. And reading that one page would be enough. And maybe the next day, you could read the next page.
And the pictures, which are watercolor illustrations, would be gentle and present and a place that you could put your eyes where they wouldn’t hurt. Sometimes when we’re grieving, we want a place to be where it doesn’t hurt, just for a moment.
So you’re really thinking about the physical, tactile experience of grieving as well.
Yes. And I really want people to know that this is a little book. It’s 5 inches by 7 inches. I wanted it to be something that someone could hold in their hands. They could put it in their pocket. In their purse. They could have it with them all the time. It helps to have a talisman — a stone, a crystal, mala beads — and this book could be like that for people. They could carry it around. They could write in it, if they want to pour themselves into it too.
I want it to be a hand to hold for people. That was my entire impulse for writing this book.
What could be more beautiful? That’s really wonderful.
I did want to ask you this. It has been a little while now since Hunter was killed. How long has it been?
It’s been four years. It was 4 years on June 29th. I’m still counting the months.
What joy does the memory of Hunter give you?
The memory of Hunter gives me great joy. Even in his difficulties, I realize what a privilege it was to be his mother. I’m grateful for the lessons he taught me. I think our children are our teachers. He taught me so many lessons. And some of them I did not want to learn.
And since he’s died, I’ve taken certain authors he loved and started to read them. He read a lot of Paul Auster. He always told me “Hey, you should read this book!” And I never did. And now I think, “What was wrong with me?” So now I’m reading his books.
It has been a way of finding things that he enjoyed. His joys. Touching that place of his joy is important to me.
And what would you say specifically for moms and dads who lose their kids?
I would say that it’s a lot to be asked of a person. That is the truth. It’s incredibly hard. It is something that is very difficult to live in the world with. But we do. And there are many others who have lost children over time.
It helps me to know that this bereavement is part of a continuum. It doesn’t help much as an individual. But to know that something that feels unique to me — my relationship with Hunter — is also a common feeling in people over time.
You’re not alone. It is as hard as it is. It’s just hard. But you’re not alone.
Thank you for sharing and creating something out of your grief that will help so many people.
Thank you for understanding that, Shauna.
Truly, if you are grieving the loss of someone you love, or you love someone who is grieving, this book is a balm. I highly recommend it.
I’m going to gift a copy of this book to someone who subscribes to my free newsletter, Get Some Joy for Free! Every Friday, I send out stories of joy, ideas about how to cultivate more joy, and recommendations for what has been giving me joy lately. For the next few weeks, I’m going to highlight books, food, movies, and experiences that have been giving me joy, then gifting one to someone there. Follow by this Friday morning to read about more joy and the chance to win this book.
Also, check out my website: You Can Have More Joy. There are lots of joyful possibilities for you there as well.