Gratitude in Grieving

Generating Gratitude Series: Part 1

I decided to start this series with Gratitude in Grieving because grief has been at the forefront for me over the past couple of years.  However, it is also the part I am most hesitant about writing, mainly because I recognize how deeply personal grief is; how utterly raw, vulnerable and downright ugly it is; and also how important it is to each person.  I understand the relationship we have with our grief and how we hold on to it as though it’s the last piece of someone we have left.  

I realize you may not want advice.  No amount of advice will suffice; it won’t help bring them back; it won’t help you feel better.  You only need someone to be there, to say to you I get itIt really sucksI’m here. 

I do. It does. I am.

With that said, please know as I write, I am doing what I can to treat this one with care, to slowly slather ointment over the wound instead of trying to quickly stitch it up, for all of us.  I also recognize some wounds are too fresh or too large for this post to touch right now.  And that’s okay.

Although I focus here on death, grief is certainly not only reserved for those grieving the death of a loved one.  It is also the ending of a relationship, a terminal diagnosis, the loss of a pet, the heartache for a baby to love.  Grief does not discriminate and I respect each unique situation.

The Grief

Now, let me get personal.  I have recently written about my father in my post How to Stop a Tornado and I will likely write about him several more times.  He died only 1.5 years ago at the age of 59, and it still feels like it has only been a day.  Although I am functioning much better than the first year, I am still very much grieving him.  I miss his goofy laugh, big nose, and receding hairline.  I miss the way he was either horribly late or horribly early to everything.  I miss that he would call me by my middle name for no reason at all and that I had to stand on my tiptoes to hug him.  Most of all, I miss that I felt like his world. 

To sum up for you the depths of my grief, I will share a poem that illustrates it fairly succinctly.  This poem was actually born from a letter I wrote to a dear friend of mine whose grief over the loss of her daughter was so palpable I could feel it; but it was only after my father’s death did I realize how much I relate to it and decided to turn parts of it into a poem:

My father wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but my bond with him as his only child - his only daughter - was as unique as him and when he died, it felt as though my body was turned completely inside-out. It was the kind of grief that leaves you breathless because every breath you take is a reminder of the fact they aren’t breathing.  

I spent the first year wandering in and out of the denial and acceptance stages of grief (acceptance meaning accepting that it’s real, not accepting that it’s okay), acceptance coming at times I couldn’t anticipate: the accidental glimpse of his photo (a practice I still sometimes resist), the person wearing his scarf, the realization I couldn’t call him with happy news to share.  

The death of my father changed something inside of me.  I feel older, less innocent, more mortal. 

The Gratitude

So in all of this ugliness, how could I possibly be grateful? How can I try on anything positive when I am cloaked in sorrow?  And, if I do, doesn’t that mean I’m saying it is okay he’s gone?  It’s not okay he is gone!

In her (amazing) book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown writes:

To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. But, I’m learning that recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude and grace.

If I had to give up my relationship with my father in order to avoid this pain of losing him, would I?

We enter into and maintain relationships with the knowledge they may end; that we may end up as the last one standing, alone.  But the love, excitement, companionship, and friendship we experience in our connection with other human beings is what keeps us going. 

It’s why we fall in love again after heartbreak, why we still try to conceive after three miscarriages, why we open our eyes and breathe in, even when the air hurts our heart.  The reward is far greater than a life without these connections.  

So what does gratitude in the ugliness look like?  Gratitude is not about being thankful for the pain; I am not thankful for the pain.  Of course I am thankful for the good my father brought to my life, but how can I exercise that gratitude when I can barely breathe?

When I started writing this post, I wasn’t sure I would have the answer.  But, that’s the beauty of writing (for me).  It provides insight into my own mind I would not otherwise realize I possess; and what I have realized for myself is each time I talk about him with others, I exercise gratitude.  Each time I smile at his photo or pass on his values, I exercise gratitude.  And each time I remember his goofy laugh, big nose and receding hairline, I exercise gratitude for the unique space he occupied in my life.

These acts of gratitude do not require anything new on my part.  They do not require me to stop grieving, to forget he is gone, or to pretend I am thankful for the pain; they only require my awareness. Having the awareness that I am being grateful each time my mind allows him to wander back into his unique space affords the gratitude its own place marked occupied right next to him, and becomes one less space where grief can take up residence.  

If we love someone, enjoy someone, care for someone from the deep part of us that is capable of this magnificent thing called love, we have all the ability in the world to be grateful.  Having the chance to love beyond measure, to grieve until our bodies are turned inside-out, means that we have lived to the greatest possible extent.

Gratitude and grief can be neighbors who sometimes fight over property lines and then get together for a beer.  The pain is a reminder we are still alive, gratitude a reminder they live on.  Both can (and do) exist together and, for those of us in the trenches, simply acknowledging we are capable of more than pain can mean the difference between life or death.  

In what way can you see gratitude in your own grief?  

It is more than a prompt for thought, it's the beginning of a conversation.  If you would like to continue it, please contact me or feel free to post in the comments.  None of us are in this alone.