Ask Polly: How Can I Stay Happy When Tragedy Surrounds Me?

Earlier this season on <em>Game of Thrones</em>.
Earlier this season on Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

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Dear Polly,

I’m writing for your advice on living with a family that feels defined by endless tragedy and loss. Here’s a rough overview: From the time I was in high school, my family has suffered a series of horrible tragedies, starting with my older sister’s meltdown and diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, through the drawn-out illnesses of three grandparents, the disintegration of my parents’ marriage, and my father’s diagnosis with early-onset dementia about five years ago, to mention some notable examples. During most of this, I have been away, in college and then in graduate school. Now, at 33, I’ve finished a Ph.D. and started a new job in a new town with an awesome guy and a ridiculously cute puppy. I generally have visited home two or three times a year, but now I am closer and I would like to visit more regularly, but I am not sure how to stay close and also stay sane.

When I visit, I feel so weighed down by everything, and so old, and so lonely. My dad has always been my hero, and every time I see him and see how he is declining, it is like I lose him all over again. My sadness is always so fresh and raw. I am so angry at the universe for the injustice of someone with such a lively, sharp mind losing all of his abilities one by one. My older sister is still suffering from schizophrenia and I have seen no sign that her life, in an assisted-living facility, will ever change. Her life looks so bleak and empty to me, and I can never think of what to say to her. I don’t know how my mom keeps going (and I worry that she is heading toward a collapse). She is still working full-time. She also coordinates all of my dad’s care, my sister’s care, and her mom’s care, plus making sure all of these people have regular visits and social contact, if not with her then with other friends.

I want to show all of these people that I love them, I want to spend time with them, and, especially for my dad, I want to make his remaining years as joyful as possible (he is physically healthy, so it isn’t clear if this will be two years or ten). I want to be patient and fun and honest and involved with my dad and my sister and my mom and my grandma.

I also want to distance myself from the intense grief and helplessness I feel when I am home, or when I think about home. I don’t want to become a person who is angry and bitter at the universe. I want to live my own life, with my own career and family. I want to feel lighthearted and carefree, at least every now and then. I feel like I’ve been grieving all of my adult life and there is no end in sight. I have a tendency toward depression, and being around these people I love and watching them suffer makes me start to spiral into a dark place. And of course, wanting to insulate myself from my family also makes me feel horribly guilty and selfish.

Do you have any advice on how to keep these relationships going, to be a positive, joyful person in my family’s lives, and to also keep myself from collapsing when I visit? Or how to be both incredibly sad and still have shared moments of joy? Or how to pick myself up after a visit and set things aside so I can go back to life?

Need an Antidote to Tragedy


Because I’ve been traveling alone this week, which I basically never do, I’ve been thinking a lot about how fundamental environment and mood and exposure are to cultivating optimism. I’ve also been worrying a lot, and contemplating aging and decline and growing children who leave the house at some point and never come back. I’ve been wondering how fragile my happiness is, and wondering if someone with my depressive background will be able to navigate the countless challenges ahead without sinking a little, or even losing the ability to help myself and others completely.

I definitely don’t sound like a steadfast, confident woman who gives advice when I write those things. And maybe I chose your letter in part because it makes me feel so unsure. I don’t feel all that capable of giving advice today, so I’m choosing a letter that I’m pretty sure I can’t answer. Somehow, that feels like a good first step. I could be very wrong about that, of course! I could be wrong about everything. That’s always a possibility.

On the wall of the apartment where I’m staying right now, there’s a photograph of a sign that says something in Russian, and underneath that, there’s the English translation: “WALKING IN THIS AREA YOU RISK YOUR LIFE.”

We all risk our lives every second of every day. We are always risking something. We might lose something soon, or lose something later. On some fragile early mornings (maybe when I drank a few tasty tequila drinks the night before, maybe not), I wake up and everything steady and solid feels like it’s made of gas and can just float away. My kids are not guaranteed to be happy. Their parents are old and who knows if they’ll feel buoyant and unstoppable after they lose us. I am not guaranteed continued health or success or happiness. Bad things could happen.

I have a recurring dream where the Earth stops spinning and gravity stops working and everything starts silently floating upward. In my dream, there are lots of flower pots sitting on windowsills to demonstrate this. The air gets thin and we all watch the flowerpots float up into the sky and we look at each other and try to speak but all we can do is say, with our eyes, I GUESS THIS IS IT.

I’m sure if the Earth stops spinning it won’t be quite so cinematic and calm, with floating flowerpots and MEANINGFUL SAUCER-EYED LOOKS. It’ll probably be more like that recent episode of Game of Thrones (don’t worry, this is hardly a spoiler, just a very general foreshadowing). Unspeakable horrors will unfold, and then a blue-eyed motherfucker will give us a look that doesn’t say I GUESS THIS IS IT so much as WINTER IS COMING AND I’M ABOUT TO FEAST ON YOUR SAD MORTAL FLESH IN KEEPING WITH THE TRADITIONS OF THIS FESTIVE SEASON.

Please excuse the extended, somewhat maudlin preamble, but this life itself is an extended, somewhat maudlin preamble. We are all doomed to the grave, and we all have a limited time to transform whatever shitheap of strong feelings and unpaid bills and bad hair days and lukewarm coffee we have in our grasp into something resilient and unflappable and full of joy. My feeling is that we do this mostly by letting it all in. We don’t build a giant wall between our good, happy, frolicking-puppy lives and the schizophrenic sister and the father whose mind is slipping and the mother who is slowly being crushed by all of it. We bring the puppy (in our heads) to the sister. We bring the sister to the puppy. We let the tears come when we’re happy. We laugh as much as we can when we’re sad. We sit with all of the crushing, sinking, fearful feelings, and we say, WINTER IS COMING AND MY FLESH IS JUST A CUMIN-INFUSED LAMB BURGER FOR SOME RAVENOUS BLUE-EYED MONSTER. That feels less terrible than you might expect.

What I like the least is the idea of fate. If the future is mapped out then there could be enormous suffering there that we’re meant to get chilling glimpses of NOW. “This strange moment might be an omen of a terrible future plot twist,” we tell ourselves. “This might be a message that everything is about to crumble around me.” Fuck that shit. Surrendering to the fact that everything is fragile and uncertain shouldn’t mean feeling like your future (good or bad) is inscribed in some golden prophecy in the sky. That paradigm leads not only to helplessness but to passivity.

That route feels all wrong, doesn’t it? Knowing that winter is coming and giving in to that and lying down in the snow and serving up your tasty lamb-burger flesh to demons? FUCK THAT! Grab your Valyrian steel and turn those pock-faced bitches into ice!

Likewise, the sadness on one side of your life doesn’t have to mean that you are Fated to Be Sad, or that life is One Big Slow Sad Decline Unto Death. You don’t have to bring that sad back in a great big bag and redecorate your happy life in its sad image. But you can let it in instead of trying to hold it back. Extreme sadness lies at the heart of exhilarating passion. Uncertainty lies at the heart of wisdom. Being lost lies at the heart of feeling like you will always be at the center of everything no matter what happens.

I don’t have a lot of concrete advice for getting through this on a mundane level. Without a doubt, you need to exercise vigorously at least five days a week. Your sanity will pay a big price if you don’t. You should get plenty of sleep every night on a regular schedule. You should eat very healthy things. Tell your friends you need them. Keep a journal. Take exceptionally good care of yourself, every step of the way. Read great books and watch sad movies and connect with the heaviness in the world and witness how other people have done so without sinking completely.

I also don’t have the most concrete advice on giving your family love. You already know what makes a difference to them. Even though everything good from the past has been transformed into this tragic present moment, you have to realign yourself with the present as much as you humanly can. Don’t get so fixated on what they’ve lost that you can’t still be near them. Don’t get so focused on how hard it is to reach them that you stop reaching, even in your heart. Reach for them in your heart when you’re not with them, and let yourself feel the flood of pain that comes with that, but also feel how good and generous and right it feels to keep trying, even when it’s impossible. Keep trying to reach them.

Walking in this area, you risk your life. Keep risking your life. There is no other choice. Don’t pretend otherwise. You can’t protect yourself. You can’t hide. You can’t build walls between sad and happy. When you feel like a divine savior and a savory dinner for the undead at the same time, that’s when you’re getting to the center of everything. We are all divinely consecrated and deeply fucked. We can reach out to each other and the world will shift ever so slightly toward grace.

We’re in this together. When your father’s eyes go blank, when your sister is unresponsive, when the puppy chases a fly across the room, when the moon shines in your window on a sleepless night, breathe in deeply and remember that. We are embracing whatever we have, and shifting this world toward grace.


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All letters to become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: How Can I Stay Happy Amid Tragedy?