After losing my husband to cancer, I didn’t find much to feel grateful about. He had died way too early – we were supposed to grow old together.
With catastrophic loss, of course, comes catastrophic grief. I felt cleaved in two, invisibly hemorrhaging pain, fear, anger, the future we’d planned. I was suddenly a single mother of an eighth grader. I was having to navigate my own grief as well as trying to shepherd my daughter through hers.
Serious illness is a series of progressive loss – well-being, income, physical and mental ability, independence and agency – resulting in powerlessness. Death is the culmination. If we were to survive this and come through the other side, I needed a strategy. I decided to do one productive thing outside of work every day that I could feel good about, no matter how small. Making the bed. Returning a phone call. That allowed me to regain some sense of control. It cracked the door open for gratitude.
Gratitude had been present throughout my husband’s illness – we were enveloped by support from family, friends, and my Hospice Austin work family. That support continued after his death. We were lucky to have so many people who cared. I began to notice, when my grief, anger and powerlessness threatened to overwhelm me, that gratitude softened the most jagged edges. Our loss was so great, because he was so great. I was so lucky that he was my husband. My daughter was so lucky that he was her dad. We were so fortunate to have him in our lives at all.
Our brains and bodies benefit from gratitude practices. Studies that have looked at gratitude found participants experience increased levels of determination, attention and energy. Gratitude has also been found to help with depression, sleep, exercise and physical pain. Finally, gratitude can increase optimism. In grief, optimism will likely look different, however gratitude can help a person find some small level of grounding, hope, or belief that this can be survived.
Everyone grieves differently and develops different methods to cope. Taking a walk in nature was one of the few things that caused the tense ball in the center of my chest to relax. Taking time to focus on the things I had, rather than what I had lost, was another. On particularly hard days, often walking along a trail somewhere, I would recite the things I appreciated: “I’m grateful for my husband! I’m grateful for my daughter! I’m grateful for my dog! I’m grateful for my friends! I’m grateful for the sun! I’m grateful for this trail!
Embracing gratitude doesn’t mean we lose who we are and the one we love. It doesn’t mean that their death isn’t monstrously unfair. It doesn’t mean that it no longer hurts. What it does mean – for me – is that I can survive this grief, be the mother my daughter needs me to be, and can again find joy and meaning in life.
Activities for Incorporating Gratitude
Just One Little Thing (JOLT)
After the death of her son, Kelly Buckley started the practice of JOLT – She found just one little thing each day to be thankful for, no matter what. You might try keeping a journal of your JOLTs or sharing them with someone by text or in person.
This is an exercise you can do at the end of the day or during dinner, with your family, by yourself or with someone you love. Try texting your Four Things to a friend! Or you might keep a journal of your Four Things. And it’s okay if the 4 things you name seem small! In grief, even small things can be significant.
- Name 2 things you are grateful for today
- Name 1 thing you are proud of today
- Name 1 thing you are looking forward to
30 Days With A Grateful Heart
– Nancy McCranie, Hospice Austin’s Director of Volunteer and Bereavement Services
A number of years ago I saw a post on social media from a friend who had lost her father a few years before. Her post was titled: 30 Days With a Grateful Heart. She explained that following her dad’s death she lost her way for a while until she rediscovered the power of gratitude to ground and heal. To reinforce the habit of gratitude, she was committing to posting one photo each day of something in her life for which she was grateful for thirty days.
I began to follow her posts each day, charmed and touched by the simple, everyday things she felt gratitude for: her husband’s work boots because they reminded her of how hard he worked for their family; her mother’s hands because they had taught her how to bake and sew and garden and love; her daughter’s silly faces because they made her laugh. And on and on.
I decided to try it and the effect it had on me was wonderful. I began to look for things I was grateful for and that changed what I saw each day; changed how and to what I paid attention. Some days I was silly about it and other days more serious and reflective. For example, one day I was grateful for potato chips, my idea of the perfect comfort food. Another day I was grateful for my grandparents and their profound influence on my life. Consider trying 30 Days with a Grateful Heart. Keep it simple. See if it shifts anything within you.
Hospice Austin offers online and in-person support groups, individual counseling, monthly webinars, and a summer grief group for children. Holidays can be particularly difficult. Join Hospice Austin online on Thursday, Nov. 9 from 7:00 – 8:30 pm for “Surviving the Holidays,” an evening of support and guidance on ways to navigate the holiday season while grieving the loss of someone you love. You can learn more here.