Gratitude is powerful magic. It is a perception shifter. It can make a huge difference between misery and joy. When I view the world through the lens of gratitude, it’s impossible to simultaneously view it through a lens of criticism or pessimism or depression. My brain – any brain – cannot perform both tasks at the same time.
Still, it’s not easy to access gratitude when someone you love has died, or your husband has left you for the babysitter, or your mother is now living with a terminal diagnosis, or your brother came back from combat not quite right in the head, or your best friend isn’t as able-bodied as she was before the car wreck.
Shit happens. Pain ensues. Grief sets in. Pessimism, depression, cynicism, and a bad attitude are often not too far behind. Which is understandable. It’s easy to fall into a deep pit of despair when life veers as far from “The Plan” as it possibly can.
How on earth do you shift your brain into gratitude when life has just kicked you in the gut? “I’m in pain!” you want to yell out to anyone who will listen. “Don’t you get it? How dare you ask me to be grateful for anything? My life is shit!”
To add to the challenge, we’re actually WIRED for a negativity bias; we are constantly scanning (often unconsciously) for what’s WRONG out there, for what might be a threat. This makes us more inclined to notice what isn’t working and what’s hurting us, rather than what is working and might actually help.
No doubt about it: an attitude of gratitude requires extra effort. If you’re already pissed off at the world because of the hand you’ve been dealt, any extra effort asked of you can feel like insult added to injury. Taking on an attitude of gratitude may feel like a ridiculous objective.
I’ve told this part of my story before but it bears repeating here. For several months after Julian’s suicide there was a recurring chorus of, “Oh my God, I can’t imagine a worse thing happening to a parent.” In all honesty, I concurred at the time. I couldn’t imagine a worse thing happening to a parent either! These individuals clearly understood how hideous my loss was. They validated my pain.
And then one day, I was telling yet another person the news of my son’s suicide, and those words were repeated, “I can’t imagine a worse thing happening to a parent.” This time I responded differently. I can’t tell you what had shifted for me at that juncture, but I questioned the truth of the statement rather than accept it as fact. Later on that day, I made a surprisingly long list of all the ways Julian could have died that would have been – for me – much, much worse than losing him to suicide.
Experts discourage grievers from comparing their grief to the grief of others. This is sound advice. It can result in a useless game of oneupmanship. “My pain is so much worse than your pain.” When the truth is that there is no “Grief Scale.” If you are grieving, it is probably the worst pain you have ever experienced, the worst pain of your life. That’s all that matters.
But I wasn’t comparing my pain to the pain of others. I took my set of real circumstances and compared them to hypothetical fact patterns, and imagined my response to these scenarios. A surprising thing happened: I began to be genuinely and deeply grateful I had not lost my son in all those other ways. My gratitude muscle was getting its first workout. Perhaps it was an unexpected and weird way to start, but at least it was a start.
After a while of bringing this into my awareness, rather than feeling so, so sad that my son had died, I found myself focusing on how incredibly grateful I was that he had lived, that our journeys had overlapped for twenty years as mother and son. This was probably the most profound “pivot point” for me.
This shift didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t “stick” right away either. Two steps forward; one step backwards. Grief is that kind of a dance. I had to consciously work at maintaining this shift. I started:
- believing the level of pain I was in did not have to be permanent (for a while this step was more “fake it till you make it” than the real deal, but I eventually truly believed);
- paying attention to my thoughts instead of unconsciously allowing them to have their way with me and batter me around;
- discarding, or at least redirecting, the thoughts that were detrimental to my outlook on life;
- doing all of this over and over and over.
This work has been worth it; the effects of a “gratitude attitude” have been, and continue to be, profoundly beneficial. I’ve found some peace.
I do not stand in judgment of anyone who is grieving differently than I have. Loss is so intimately personal and unique to every single human. You are not doing it “wrong” if you cannot (and don’t even want to) get all touchy-feely with gratitude. Especially if your loss is recent.
Just know that if the weeks, months or years have passed, and you’re wondering how to even begin to shift your perspective, gratitude may be a gentle place to start.
Photo by Carl Attard from Pexels