A few weeks ago, a client* looked at me and asked a version of this question: “How am I supposed to go around the table, listen to why everyone else is grateful, and say what I’m grateful for?” He followed this up with, “I’ll just have to fake it I guess…” Having lost his mother after a long illness some months ago, and this being the first holiday season after that loss, the thought of this Thanksgiving tradition seemed to be too much. This got me thinking – how does one move on after such a life-changing loss; how does gratitude intermingle with grief; can gratitude help us move through the pain? So, I reached out to friends and family, remarked about the upcoming holidays, and asked them this question: “How does gratitude help you navigate through grief?”
Ironically, the first person that responded to me is a beautiful woman I met through volunteer work at Comfort Zone Camp (a non-profit organization that provides free, weekend-long bereavement camps to children ages 7-17) named Amanda. Amanda lost both of her parents about 16 years ago in a murder-suicide. She wrote about how her relationship to the holiday season has transformed over time, “From once a very sad, grim time full of tears and no sense of gratitude to a now joyous time of year where my gratitude overflows… since my great loss I feel more deeply, love harder, see and feel people’s sadness, [and] am comfortable in reaching out when someone is struggling…” Christine, an old college friend whom I grew close to through our creative writing class, shared of the recent loss of her grandmother, “I just have to constantly look around and see what beautiful people I am surrounded with. Losing my Gigi caused a domino effect of losses and pain, but through it all, reminded yourself of what you have and focusing on the gratitude for that is what helps the most.”
Terri, a brilliant LMSW I had the pleasure of working with in the infancy stages of my career, said this in regards to the holidays, “Not to be contrary but grief for me is not tied to the holidays.” I loved her candid response because this was simply a reaction that never would have occurred to me; perhaps due to my own projection of how I deal with grief surrounding the holiday season. Terri lost her dad and fiancé in 1995, and then her godfather and mother approximately 3 years ago. She continued, “Missing people is like the ocean, sometimes the tide comes in and you are flooded with feelings, other times it’s out and you walk the beach all day with nothing but gratitude for having known them all.” My husband’s uncle, Jack, shared some of Terri’s sentiments. In the past 45 years, Jack has lost a daughter, a son, and his father. He asks a powerful, moving question, “…how can thankfulness be found in an empty chair?” He believes it is not gratitude that gets him through, but hope and faith, “I have discovered that gratitude is HOPE in the distance…”
Ted, my father-in-law, lost his 18-month old daughter, Tara, in 1989 and the love of his life, Ann, in 2011. He shared about the significance of finding balance, the importance of incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your routine, and the meaning of what we choose to focus on. And lastly, he shared, “So the bottom line is while experiencing and embracing the pain and sadness of loss is vitally important, perhaps for your life, gratitude is what balances that and helps you learn from the pain and change the pain at least a bit. Rev. Smith said [that] at Tara’s funeral, and it’s been a watch word of mine since. You have to try and find the positive in everything.”
One of my mistakes in writing this article is the way I framed my question. Rather than, “How does gratitude help you navigate through grief?” The question should have been – “Does gratitude help you navigate through grief? Why or why not?” – because, the truth is, gratitude does not have a place in grieving for everyone. Certainly, it does not initially for most, and perhaps for some, not ever. For some though, finding and expressing gratitude transforms quicksand into sand; albeit, that sand will be harder to walk through on certain days.
I was blessed with the opportunity to see how those around me, some close and some distant, experience grief, gratitude, and the holiday season. Maybe there is solace in knowing that sometimes our hardest losses, sitting in the shadows with others who are mourning, and sharing our own stories of loss and suffering, often brings out the best versions of ourselves. And maybe it is possible to find gratitude in that.
*story used with client permission
originally published November 2016