Happiness interview: Natalie Taylor.
Natalie Taylor has written a wonderful, moving memoir, Signs of Life. When she was 24 years old and five-months pregnant, Natalie’s husband Josh died in a skateboarding accident, and her book describes what she went through over the next few years.
I really loved this book. One of my happiness-project resolutions is to Read memoirs of catastrophe, and out of her experience, Natalie was able to convey some very profound insights into the nature of love and happiness.
I also loved this book for another reason. As an ardent supporter of organ donation, I was very moved to read how her family handled the issue: without a second thought. “Josh donates seven organs,” Natalie wrote. Tears welled up in my eyes when I read that.
Gretchen: Becoming a widow is an enormous happiness challenge. How did you meet it?
Natalie: A few days after losing my husband, I vividly remember sitting in the passenger’s seat of my sister’s car telling her I could never be happy again. Three and a half years later, I don’t feel that way at all. I’m not even quite sure how or when it happened. I just know that at the time, I was desperate not to be destroyed by grief, not just for me, but for my son. So, I tried everything. I saw a psychologist, I went to spousal grief group, I went to a single mom’s group, I forced myself to go through pictures, I wrote, I read, I acknowledged anniversaries, and as much as I faked it in front of other people (man, did I get good at that), I never lied to myself. Part of me knew I needed to get in the fight early and often or else the grief could morph into a very dangerous monster. It’s not to say I’m on cloud nine everyday, but the pain of the immediate grief is like the pain of labor—you how bad it hurt, but the intensity of the moment is a memory of the past.
What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Two things: 1. Playing with my son. A lot of times I get so wrapped up in making dinner and doing laundry that I forget to slow down and just play. The best is when I turn my phone off, turn the radio off, turn the oven off and just put 100% of myself into pretending to be Han Solo.
2. Exercise. I do this thing called CrossFit where it’s a one-hour class that usually leaves me crumpled up on the floor gasping for air feeling like I am going to die. It’s awesome. But more than the workout itself, I love the people at my gym. The combination of getting stronger and having a fun community of people is totally addicting.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I’m pretty sure it’s called “eating your feelings.” I’m not sure if this happens to anyone else, but when I am full of mixed emotions, I will walk into my kitchen and have sort of a black out moment and then the next thing I know there are cookie crumbs all over the counter. I can tell you from experience, this does not make me happier, but shamefully, I do it repeatedly.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
In the midst of my grief, a wise person told me, “you are only visiting this place.” Sometimes life has us feeling like we are stuck in a bad place forever. In my book I talk a lot about not just my bad place, but how I got out—sometimes I was gently carried by those who loved me, sometimes I was dragged by my collar, and other times I clawed my way out myself. I came to realize that no matter how dark life got, I did not have to stay there forever. Now when I have a hard day, I remind myself that it’s a visit, not a permanent residence.
Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
I love being around people who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. I remember before my husband’s viewing, my best friend, Katie, who had lost her mom three years earlier, told me that people were going to say a lot of stupid things to me at the viewing about why Josh died. She said, “I am handing you an invisible stack of STFU cards” which stood for “Shut the F@#& Up” and she told me when people say things that I don’t care to hear, I can imagine handing them one of my cards. Katie’s honest and humorous approach has gotten me through a lot.
Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I keep my ear to the ground for the little tricks on leading a happier life. The Monday after Easter, Anne, a coworker of mine with four little kids, told me she was always overwhelmed with holidays, but this year she took the advice of another mom whose kids are older now. Anne told me before her relatives and in-laws came over for brunch, she took a shot of tequila. She said it actually really helped. I’m not advocating for drunk Easter Sundays, I’m just saying, I place a high value on these black market pearls of wisdom. It’s usually the best advice.
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