Gratitude: It’s Not For Sissies

To listen to an audio reading of this post, click here or go to bit.ly/GriefGratitudeAudio

.

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.

If you want to, share with me moments when you’ve experienced that sharp prick of gratitude within your pain. Or, if you’ve found it too hard to feel grateful for anything at all in the midst of your pain, share that with me too…

Posted:

9 thoughts on “Gratitude: It’s Not For Sissies

  1. Thanks so much. This is an amazing piece of writing. I printed it and will keep rereading it. I am experiencing anticipatory grief because my husband of 43 years will be dying within months of esophageal and stomach cancer. But between the bouts of overwhelming grief I still do a gratitude practice and see the beauty in things. But in grief support groups both in-person and online, so many fellow grievers don’t see the beauty in anything and can’t find gratitude. Sometimes it ‘s almost like a competition to see who can hold/perpetuate the most grief because that means they loved the most. But I’ve always been blessed/cursed to see shades of gray, not just black and white. Yes, I am losing my husband and it feels way too early at 66…but I’m so grateful for the 43 years we had. Yes, I am going from we to me and I may be in danger of screaming/crying the first time I dare to go to a restaurant alone and hear “Just one? Just you? Party of one?”, but my husband’s love enabled me to work on a lot of growth and actualization, so I just may be strong enough to survive this. And with the grief I will be feeling, why is it bad to make/have room for a little joy? Moments of joy will be well-deserved and provide a respite to recharge momentarily so then I could get back to the business of grieving.

    Since my husband’s diagnosis two months ago, I have still felt gratitude for the little things….music that still moves me, a double rainbow, snuggles from my cat, a delicious piece of chocolate…and people like you who give of themselves to make the road a little easier for someone else. If I really want to have a full gratitude session, I will link all the things and people that can bring joy or make life easier, like AJ Jacobs did in his book, Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, where he traced all that went into his morning cup, from people growing the coffee all the way to the barista serving it. Even now, I can do it for the medical process that’s trying to ease my husband’s dying as much as possible, like the professors who trained my husband’s doctors and the people who packaged the medications.

    And a mindfulness practice, including yoga, qi gong, and meditation make room/space for feelings of gratitude amidst the all-too-pervasive feelings of grief.

    Have you seen this Dean Koontz quote about grief? Very much in line with your writing:

    Grief can destroy you –or focus you. You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end in death, and you alone. OR you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn’t allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it. But when it’s over and you’re alone, you begin to see that it wasn’t just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill. It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it. The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can’t get off your knees for a long time, you’re driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss. And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life.

    1. Ellen,
      I’m moved to tears reading your response to my writing. I’m always amazed at how intertwined grief and gratitude are moving and beautiful beyond words, no matter who is expressing them. I’m sorry you have to lose your beloved husband. And I’m grateful you’ve had him for all this time; grateful that you can know what you have while you have it so you will feel grief but never regret. Thank you for sharing the Dean Koontz quote. That’s beautiful and right on target.
      Sending care,
      Candyce

    2. Ellen, Thank you for posting the quote about grief. It brings tears to my eyes. also. Thank you for sharing your feelings and perspective on grief and gratitude.. I am so sorry for what is happening in your life with you and your, treasured husband. I lost my husband of 34 years in January of 2019 at the age of 66. Yes, much too early. Thank you for your words.

  2. I loved reading this and it really resonated with something I wrote years ago I’d like to share with you Candyce. I am a therapist working in New Zealand… narrative in my first love followed closely by polyvagal theory. Grief is also a topic I know myself and am comfortable walking alongside With.

    https://www.kindredmedia.org/2013/09/the-joy-of-grief/

    I’d like to be in touch.

    My very best wishes
    Hilary

    I

    1. Hilary,
      Wow! We are kindred spirits. I very much enjoyed reading your article about grief. I’m sitting here moved at the idea that you and I can connect over grief from halfway across the world, in the middle of a pandemic that is causing so many of us to socially isolate. Truly a miracle in the modern world. Thank you for writing.

      Given your interest in polyvagal theory and in grief, you might like to read the chapter I wrote in Stephen Porges’ book, Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory. It’s called Grief Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory: Humanizing Our Response to Loss. You can read a copy of it at http://bit.ly/COR2018PorgesChp18.
      Sending care,
      Candyce

  3. Candyce, Thank you for this post. I need to think about this one. It is tough for me to find gratitude when my whole world and outlook on life has been shattered, all the hopes and dreams and belief in the “happily ever after.” My husband was my every day “something to look forward to.” And I was his. It is a struggle waking up each morning and not seeing Clay’s charming smile when he would bring me coffee and say, “Hey Beautiful.” How do we go on without all that love being poured into our life, every second? It is as you say, “hard to find beauty in devastation.” Your words are always so much appreciated and meaningful to me. I must make myself sit and think on this one as difficult as it seems.

    1. Karen,
      I’m so glad you’re being clear and honest about this. I don’t mean to suggest that you should “find” gratitude. The kind of gratitude I’m talking about emerges, if it’s going to, in its own time. I think I would be insulting you to ask you to try to manufacture it now, while you’re hurting so much. I wouldn’t expect you to feel grateful in the midst of the pain you’re in. Looking in from the outside, what I’m grateful for for you at this moment is that you indeed had a love as enormous as Clay’s love for you was. I can sense the vastness of his love for you in the shattering force of your pain. You wouldn’t hurt that much if he hadn’t loved you beyond measure. I hate that you have to hurt so much, yet I’m so glad you knew that kind of love. Is it okay if I hold that gratitude for you?
      Candyce

      1. Yes, and I would be grateful if you would. Thank you for feeling the love that Clay and I shared. Your words about Clay’s enormous love touched my heart deeply. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *