How to be Happy in the Face of Grief

Pamela Moulton, a former printing executive, now spends her days tending grapevines in northern California. She made the change to satisfy a desire to connect with nature, and had written a book, Seasons Among the Vines: Life Lessons from the California Wine Country, about the lessons she has learned from waking up at dawn, fixing her own tractor and dirtying her hands. Here, she discusses those lessons, and how proximity to nature has played a key role in dealing with grief and managing the twists and turns of life.

Q: Are you happy? Why are you happy?

A: Yes, I am happy. I am happy because I am at a place in my life where I am genuinely satisfied to live in the present and am not so concerned with the past or even the future.

Q: You left a job in printing to become a farmer. What role does farming play in your current happiness?

A: I did not feel fulfilled in my job and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to make a change. I like adventure, the out-of-doors, and we chose to move to Sonoma County, a perfect place for me to get involved in farming as a career. I think there’s a connection between exploring nature and finding inner peace. More importantly, I believe that we can learn a lot about life through nature and the lessons nature teaches.

Q: Your husband died several years ago in a car accident, just days before your book was published. How did you become happy once again?

A: I can’t put a time frame on my grief after losing my husband because it is ongoing, but what I have done is learned to live each day with the concept that if at the end of the day, I feel more joy than sorrow, it was a good day.

Q: Did you respond to your husband’s death by making any major life changes?

A: Everything about my life changed: my career, my home, all of my possessions. My career changed overnight when I was called upon to assume responsibility for my husband’s solo orthopedic practice. I hired in local physicians to see the two months of patients he had already booked and for follow-up patients that needed immediate care from recent surgeries. I felt like I was another person stepping in to my husband’s shoes and completely [disengaging from] my own life. There were many difficult logistics in taking over his practice since he had over 15,000 patients that I was now responsible for, and the entire process took around eight months. I also sold our home within two months, as it wasn’t financially prudent for me to keep it, and with our home went my vineyard land as well as most of our personal possessions like furniture, beds, dishes, etc. And I stopped writing. In my mind, I felt that I had no choice in making all of these changes; they were things that needed to be done in order for us to carry on.

Q: What did grief teach you about yourself and your inner strength? Did nature play a role in your recovery?

A: Grief is still teaching me about life. It’s not just about inner strength, although that does play a part, but I learned what worked for me and how I could still be a productive member of society, even while suffering grief. Nature invoked this epiphany. I noticed that buildings didn’t really change with the seasons the way grapevines did. Should I keep changing with the seasons or should I remain solid like the structures in my town? I need to accept change and remain true to my own convictions and follow the seasons, using them as a guide for the inevitable changes in my life.

Q: How has nature helped you learn how to cope with change?

A: I believe that the seasons of nature reflect the seasons of life and in a very powerful way they act as a metaphor for life. After a harsh winter, spring comes popping up bringing new hope, new dreams, and new ways to look at things. Then summer pours warmth and peace over the developments we have conjured up from our spring reflections bringing a mixture of fortitude and solitude. And then fall saunters in and we prepare to promote what Mother Nature has given us over the past year. My rituals center around following the inspirations of the seasons: we eat the foods of the seasons; we follow the spiritual guidance of the seasons; and as the year comes to an end, we begin the process over again. I feel that living so close to nature has helped me recognize its many benefits and to incorporate this in to my life.

Q: What did you learn about yourself in writing your book? Has it changed your self-perception?

A: Writing a book is extremely tough on many levels, but I do think that I was driven by a passion I had no control over. I love to tell stories that inspire people and I’m not afraid to talk about my mistakes and biggest failures…In writing my book, I learned that no task is too difficult to attempt. There were many people who told me that I would never get my book published because I was a “nobody.” The funny thing is that their comments drove me and pushed me to continue, even when things were difficult. I exchanged fear for tenacity simply because I’m strong-willed and persistent and even though everyone told me that I was expecting the impossible. This pushed me to go even further with my dreams. This is why I love to say, “Fear the known, never fear the unknown.” Trying something new will help one get over their fear of the unknown.

Q: How do overcome sadness when it creeps in now?

A: There are several things that I do: I give myself permission to feel sad; I think about the people around me who have suffered far greater losses and are still coping; and I get out of my world and reach out to my community to help others. Helping others has given me a sense of purpose when I felt that I had none. I’m very involved with a non-profit support center for children who have lost a parent. Two of my children have been very involved, first as attending kids and second as volunteers for the organization. My son just created a website (www.chrismoulton.com) for his senior project that describes how this center helps put kids back in touch with their lives after losing a parent. We are involved as a family and this has helped us give back to others who have suffered similar losses.

Q: What are your top tips for being happy?

A: Get up every morning, put one foot in front of the other, and march through your day with a purpose, even when you feel sad or dark. Go help someone who needs help more than you do.

Q: Is being happy the most important thing? Sum up your life philosophy.

A: I have tried to learn from my mistakes and my accomplishments and that there are certain things I simply can’t change. So for me, my biggest learning comes from accepting that change is inevitable. How I adjust and adapt to change is the real challenge and the most important aspect of change. I take what I’ve learned as I’ve moved through the journey of my life and I apply it to how I react when a less than desirable change occurs.