I’m not the kind of person who loves to give advice, mostly because I don’t feel capable of teaching anything when I, myself, don’t have a great, firm handle on life and all its intricacies. I see myself as a survivor, a learner, and a person who gives it her best, where, on any given day, ‘my best’ is relative. One day, my best may mean adequately executing my responsibilities and achieving my goals, and another day it may mean just meeting the minimum expectations (read: breathing), just enough to get by.
Over the past few years, as I’ve watched my life slowly unravel, I’ve stood, knee-deep in chaos, exhaustion, and with a fair share of heartache to last me a lifetime, the ultimate loss being the loss of my infant son. With this, I’ve developed techniques for survival. I’ve learned to cope in my own way, by a constant reframing and recapturing of my emotions, a training of my mind to dwell not on sorrow continuously, but to make abundant room for gratefulness. Am I great at this? Not every day. This is simply how I strive to live— with an attitude not focused on my pain but on the good.
Before I talk about how I *try* to practice gratefulness, I first want to answer “Why?” Why be grateful? Why should I be grateful when life has not been fair? Why bother? The gut level answer is this: because I know my son would want me to live my life fully and love deeply and experience this world richly, with joy and not constant pain. And because gratefulness does a beautiful thing to an embittered heart. It softens it. It mends it. It makes it come alive again.
For me? I want to come alive again. Maybe you do, too.
Here’s a few ways you can practice gratefulness in the midst of grief.
Be Honest With Yourself
The truth is, at least if you’re anything like me, you might suck at this for a long time— possibly forever, but striving for honesty and authenticity starts within your own heart and mind. You need to allow yourself to acknowledge and feel the dark sides of grief and loss— anger, sadness, confusion, loneliness, depression— these things are big and scary, but they are also normal and need to be waded in, rather than ignored, stuffed, and avoided. Stuffing emotions or a constant rationalization or compartmentalization of such doesn’t really make room for healing, and it doesn’t really make room for a free and open heart. Unfortunately, this is something I know from experience.
Be honest with how you feel and allow yourself to spend time navigating the deep waters of grief. However counterintuitive this may feel on a quest for gratefulness and healing, this is how we make it into the clearing.
Don’t Fake It
Building off of honesty, avoid faking it. Why? Because you don’t need to do one more thing. Grief is exhausting, and when you’ve been through hell, the last thing you should have to do is hide your emotions away or live your life under a facade.
You can choose a select group of safe people to surround yourself with, and with them, you can completely be you— messy and real as it gets. Find those people (yes, it’s so hard to sometimes), and don’t put on a mask with them. With others outside of this group, don’t fake it, but you also don’t owe them any glimpse into the deepest parts of you. You’re allowed to hold some things close in this process.
Now that we’re honest, and now that we’re facing the hard stuff, we can authentically welcome in the opportunities for genuine gratefulness, sincere reframing and positive thinking.
You can start small. Maybe it’s noticing a gentle breeze that kisses your cheek. Maybe it’s a deep breath that fills your lungs like they haven’t been filled in a while. Maybe it’s a gallon full of ice cream. Maybe it’s a quiet afternoon with someone you love. Maybe it’s as simple as the way the grass feels between your toes. Maybe it’s a good book.
When your heart is broken, it’s easy to try to shield yourself from feeling anything at all— even the good. Let yourself feel, even if it’s just a moment, a moment is still a start.
Spend a few days, at the end of the day, reflecting on what brought you joy that day— what you were grateful for. Even on a day when everything seems to go wrong, look for the small light. Write it down. Sometimes, you might surprise yourself, and you’ll see that there were far more moment of light than you had realized. The first step is noticing them.
If you’re a list maker, like me. It also might be helpful to remind yourself of the things you’re grateful for in a tangible way. It could be a list on a piece of paper that you add to, it could be a notebook you reserve specifically for the purpose of practicing gratefulness, or it could be something sweet and creative like this project by my friend Franchesca.
Let It Grow
The funny thing about gratefulness is that it likes to bleed into other areas. Start small, and your attitude will evolve before you even realize what is happening. Allow it to enter in to one area, and it can take over.
When you think about your loved one who is no longer with you, the thoughts may be painful for a while. Tragedy likes to taint our view and cloud our vision. Depression and despair do a whole lot of that, too. It’s easy to think back on memories, no matter how few we may hold, and to only view them through the darker lenses of grief. Mourning is healthy and necessary, but a day may come when you are able to reframe your memories.
For me, I had two hundred days of holding my son’s hand. Two hundred days of hospitals, alarms, procedures, medications, oxygen therapy, and codes. When I realized that I would rather be the mother of that boy and endure this deep heartache of no longer holding him in my arms— I would rather still be his mom than to never know him at all. I would rather endure this inexplicable pain of outliving my own child than to never have seen his face, spoken his name, kissed those sweet little lips. I would rather be his, and he be mine, regardless. Regardless of the sorrow, the sleepless nights, and the years I will walk this earth, carrying him in my heart.
The day this changed in my perspective is the day that it all began to change. Slowly at first, and then it grew.
As far as I can see, grief will never truly end. It may become softer over time, more gentle, but some days will feel sharp, but grief will last as long as love does— forever. It’s simply the way the absence of your loved on manifests in your heart. A deep longing, accompanied by the deepest love. Some days, the heavy fog may return, and the next day, it may recede, once again. It’s all an ebb and flow, a constant dance of sorrow and joy, pain and sweet love.
As you pursue gratefulness in grief, remember that it’s all hard. This life you’ve been given is hard. This uphill battle is hard. This deep pain is hard, but the gift you have in your heart is a love that is greater than it all. Some days you’ll do better than others, but every day can be a mending, loving, sacred process in the messy, crazy world of grief.
Hang in there, friends. Be honest, start small, and let gratefulness in to your heart, little by little. I’m right here beside you.
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