North State Voices: Choosing to Celebrate
By Joanna O’Hanlon
Posted: 08/07/2013

Today is my 24th birthday. I ended up in the ER on my last birthday. Fortunately I had already gotten to eat my dessert. Unfortunately, I threw it back up in the examination room.

Thankfully it was nothing too serious – an ocular migraine – something I had never experienced before, but not very worrisome. It had been my loss of vision and my unresponsive pupils that had made my family decide I should go in.

However, it was that migraine that started my having migraines everyday for months. It’s something I still deal with a year later. My 23rd birthday has become tainted in my mind as the first entry in my headache diary.

As my 24th birthday approaches, I’m tentative. I don’t really want to celebrate. Life is good, yet hard right now. It would be easier to just let it slip by unnoticed. I’d rather just declare this year of headaches and heartaches “over and done.” But to do so would be to disregard the fact that I have so much in life to be grateful for – that’s what birthdays are about – celebrating life. Sometimes it’s hard to celebrate though.

When my older sister passed away, the timing was really terrible. That seems an insensitive thing to say. I suppose it is. But really, it feels like it couldn’t have been a worse time in her life or in the year.

She died three days after her birthday. We still had the leftovers from her family birthday dinner in the refrigerator when we returned home from the hospital, our family suddenly smaller by one. The leftovers of celebration were an assault on our grief.
My dad’s birthday was two days after the funeral. My brother-in-law’s was not even a week after that and my brother’s a couple weeks following. In the first three months of our grief and loss, we had been through one major holiday and everyone’s birthdays except mine.

We were left with the bitter feeling of loss lingering on our heads, not wanting to celebrate life because we did not want to be alive like that.

Each holiday was an obstacle that we had to find a new way to hurdle over. The things that used to be cause for celebration seemed like salt in the wound reminding us that our traditions were missing a member, that life was not sweet at the moment, that celebration is not something that always comes naturally.

It’s not that people or holidays were not worth celebrating. It’s just that it took so much strength and discipline to climb out of our grief and to choose to celebrate what is good when so much seemed broken and painful.

In time, we found that there is healing to be found in choosing joy, in choosing to participate in the discipline of celebration. We came to believe that it is not a denial of the pain, just an acknowledgement of the good that still exists.

I’ve had many times when I simply don’t feel like celebrating. But I think that cheapens the fullness of life. To only celebrate when I feel like it, to only mourn when I feel like it, to only be kind when I feel like it, to only love when I feel like it – these are the rhythms of life and I have decided to play along with the melody, practicing each in it’s own time, and recognizing that I may need to play two notes together.

I can be in a season of mourning and rebuilding at the same time. I can be in a season of desert and drought and still celebrate the breath in my lungs. I can be in a season of loss, and still celebrate all that I’ve found along the way.

It is not easy. It is a discipline. But the discipline of celebration itself helps to bring me back to life again. I believe life is always worth celebrating.

And in the midst of life being hard, I intend to choose to celebrate what is good.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and story-teller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.  Other places are

instagram: jrolicious       twitter: jrohanlon

photo credit: Aih. via photopin cc