Gratitude: It’s Not For Sissies
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How can we live gratefully? By experiencing, by becoming aware that every moment is a given moment, as we say. It’s a gift. You haven’t earned it. You haven’t brought it about in any way. You have no way of assuring that there will be another moment given to you, and yet, that’s the most valuable thing that can ever be given to us,this moment, with all the opportunity that it contains. If we didn’t have this present moment, we wouldn’t have any opportunity to do anything or experience anything, and this moment is a gift. — David Steindl-Rast
One of my favorite paintings hangs in my living room. It’s an abstract mix of curves, color, and shadow that swirl to form figures that appear somehow organic and anatomic.
Tressa, one of the best friends I ever had, created this painting just before I met her.
Tressa and I met through our town’s young widows’ grapevine, and became fast friends. Over frank conversations about harrowing grief, both of us were relieved to find a peer who didn’t wince at our very existence.
I knew Tressa was an artist, but I hadn’t seen her work until I attended her very first show. When I entered the display hall, I lost my ability to speak.
I wandered from one work of art to another, aware only of a vibration in my chest that pulsed with recognition. Painting after painting hummed alongside my inmost images of lost innocence, shattered identity, wrenching absence. Simultaneously, each emitted a glow of something soft yet strong. Sacred.
One painting in particular grabbed my attention, drew tears from my eyes.
“Do these have titles?” I whispered.
“Yes, this one’s called The Pleasure of Breathing.”
On the spot, I purchased that painting. On one miraculous rectangle of canvas was expressed a totality of experience I had not been able to put into words.
It’s The Pleasure of Breathing that hangs in my living room today.
My husband’s been dead for 28 years, Tressa for 20.
Even after all this time, this beloved art piece enlivens in my body the complex blend of emotions that surrounded my losses back then, and pour forth from the losses still.
The harsh edges of life’s painful truths lash out at me from the painting’s chaotic swirls. They evoke Tressa herself, our friendship born of loss, the utter darkness of our shared early grief, and the dousing of the sparks of dawning hope she and I were just beginning to discover when she also died too young.
Simultaneously, there’s the glow. The shimmer of the sacred that initially grabbed me when I encountered the painting all those years ago rushes out of the shapes into my soul. This painting forever reverberates with the fierce gratitude that embraces and emerges from every crevice of grief that lives within me.
That grief and gratitude are inextricably bound is a truth I had not expected to find when my husband died. Yet I keep re-discovering that simultaneity, in myself and in my loved ones and clients who experience grief over and over and over again.
Gratitude flowing from grief seems to be a near-universal experience.
I hesitate to make that statement, though.
I’m all too aware of what people in this culture tend to do with precious, anguishing discoveries like this of a spark of life force that shines within the darkness:
- Grievers might think I’m overlaying loss and grief with a blanket of sweetness, to try to take away their pain, to make them feel better.
- People who care about grievers but can’t stand to see their pain could think I’m giving them license to initiate discussions of what grievers should feel grateful for in the midst of their pain as a way to “help” them.
- Professionals who help people with grief might latch onto this idea and use it as a “technique” to get grievers to forcibly reach for gratitude as a way out of the pain of grief.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Pleasure of Breathing is not a cloying painting.
Instead, it accurately portrays the aching complexity of both/and that occurs when mortality hammers down on us, one and all:
- None of us can escape loss and grief, AND
- We get to feel loss and grief because we were privileged to be in connection with a unique person who existed alongside us for a precious, finite time.
Cheryl Strayed says it well: It’s like being slapped and kissed at the same time.
Grief-spawned gratitude is neither sweet nor pretty. And it doesn’t lessen the anguish of grief one iota.
It is not:
- Be grateful that he’s in a better place.
- There, there. You have so much to be grateful for.
- At least you had her for 50 years.
- At least he didn’t suffer.
No. It. Is. Not.
The painting’s title, The Pleasure of Breathing, hit me in the gut because it was so accurate. When grief knocked the wind out of me so thoroughly after my husband’s death, small moments when I was able to be still, simply breathe, and notice that my body was still alive even though I thought the pain might kill me, shook me with amazement.
When we’re supported to dive into the pounding surf of grief’s enormity, rather than pushed to skim over its surface, grief yanks gratitude up from the darkest depths.
This gratitude is salty and bitter, oddly shaped, and full of awe that can shatter your soul.
If no one supports you to bear your grief, it might be hard to bear this gratitude.
It’s almost painful to articulate this gratitude-amid-devastation.
The words that express the way absence and presence occupy the same space simultaneously bubble up from the core of my self that was left when my entire identity and worldview had been blown apart.
That’s a skinless place from which to speak.
Out of the depths of my grief came:
- Gratitude that my husband’s deep love for me, that I carried irrevocably within my heart, made me strong enough to bear the grief I felt from losing him.
- Gratitude for moments when my son, a toddler at the time, made me laugh when I thought I could never feel anything but numbness, ever again.
- Gratitude that, if there was another young widow out there who could understand me, Tressa and I somehow found each other in our big city (before the Internet).
- Gratitude that, because Tressa and I had shared so much loss, when she began to die of cancer both of us were fearless in appreciating every second of the life she had until the very end.
- Gratitude that the heat of a blazing summer sun could mirror the intensity of my loneliness and longing.
- Gratitude for the blood that raced through my veins when I screamed with rage.
- Gratitude that somehow I found a therapist who had the capacity to bear witness to my grief, for years and years, allowing me to be fully broken open and transformed by it. (Many, many therapists can’t do this!)
This list is short, yet my incidents of gratitude are vast. Every day for almost 30 years, I have been grateful that I can offer solace and witness to people who are suffering and grieving because I had the support and love to be utterly shattered by grief and to rebuild my life from shards.
Note that in NONE of these scenarios was I grateful for the circumstances that led me to need or to receive these glimpses of beauty.
We don’t have both/and words that describe this beauty-within-devastation. When I say that, it can sound like I mean that the devastation itself is beautiful.
We don’t have a name for the sharp prick of gratitude that pierces the heart in the midst of sorrow. The devastation itself is not beautiful. But the pulsing, beating heart at the middle of the anguish, the heart that feelsthe anguish, is a blessed, living thing that continues to pulse and beat and live and love, even through the worst of times.
For these hearts, I am grateful.