I can’t be the only person on this planet who has struggled with holding the pain of grief and “thanks-giving” at the same time.
Just today, I heard an ad on the radio outlining the things we should be grateful for. That one word, “should,” got my back up. Gratitude has become a buzz word, and I’ve often wondered how many people (myself included) really understand what gratitude is? In our busy distracted world I wonder if people really do feel and experience a deep sense of thankfulness and appreciation instead of just saying they do? Especially in the face of loss and grief.
Back in October 2006, I attended our annual family thanksgiving dinner fill with dread. All 40 of us circle around the room and state what we are thankful for. That year, I had nothing. Cam died 4 months prior, I was overcome by the largeness of my loss. As CS Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, about his wife’s death, “her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
There was a lot I should have said, and even could have said, but I didn’t. I could have said, “I am grateful for my health,” but instead I agonized over, “Why wasn’t he healthy?” I could have said, “I’m thankful for having him in my life,” which simply reinforced how much I lost and how much I still wanted him in my life. I could have said, “I’m grateful for my family,” but the only person I was looking for in that crowded room was him.
Gratefulness felt trite. Empty. Impossible.
Earlier that October day I had been sitting outside in the fall sunshine. I closed my eyes and absorbed the warmth of the sun. I could smell the crispness of fall in the air. I heard the flap of a bird’s wings as it flew overhead and stared in awe at the mere fact I just heard a bird flying.
I felt something in those experiences. I absorbed, smelt, heard, and felt awe. But, I can’t say I took the time to appreciate them. And yet, looking back, these glimpses of experiences that were so small brought large amounts relief and reprieve.
Now I see that what I needed at the time was to not only understand the power of gratitude but to shift my expectations of it. To forget what the world thinks I SHOULD be grateful for and find things that move me to a natural state of deep appreciation and kindness…and beyond that, recognize that state as gratitude itself.
In wrestling with this over the years, I have learnt some valuable lessons about how to make gratitude a more accessible experience even in the face of grief.
1. Be flexible with your expectations around gratitude. Gratitude is malleable, and your perception of gratitude will change depending on life circumstances. There may be times in your life when your gratefulness spans life-times and relationships, and there may be other times when you are grateful to get through a moment. For example, when you are healthy, it’s easy to say, “I’m grateful for good health.” After a life threatening diagnosis, your expectation of gratitude may change to being grateful for good lab results, or a good report from a surgeon. Your benchmark of gratitude has shifted and this flexibility allows you to find gratitude despite challenging situations.
2. Slow down enough to notice the small things. Think of gratitude as a practice of mindfulness. On my daily dog walk I could go over projects, to do lists, mentally solve all my problems and do all my thinking, but instead of being “mind full” I try to be mindful. I try to get out of my head and into my body. I engage my senses and take the time to notice the beauty around me; to see the slanted light shining through a grove of trees or the red fall leaves against a bright blue sky, hear the crunch of snow under my boot on an otherwise silent morning, smell the pine tree as I walk under it, the relief and release I feel after in my chest and shoulders after a deep sigh. Instead of these small things going un-noticed, they become an intentional exercise in appreciation. Thich Nhat Hanh says, "People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child - our own two eyes. All is a miracle."
3. Let it sink in. Take the small things and the beautiful things, and make them big things. Be open to feeling the shift in perception when something sparks that fire of appreciation and relief within you. That spark is what we are grateful for – it’s a feeling, a visceral response that brings us much-needed reprieve…
4. Understand that gratefulness is not about denial of loss and grief. Alternatively, we become more aware of the fullness of life – the beauty and the pain. Holding both means full engagement of the heart, full compassion, full living. Zora Neale Hurston captured both profound life and profound gratitude when she said, “I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.”
This thanksgiving, take time to slow down, and notice the small things. Gratitude helps to build courage, resilience, feelings of connection and well-being and sometimes we have to be intentional about finding these moments and letting them grace us.
On the topic of Gratitude, I have found these sites invaluable: