This afternoon I spoke to a client who just lost her husband a couple of weeks ago. He’d been battling ALS for the last few years. She’s planning for an upcoming memorial service and will be returning to work next week. Thank goodness, it will be short week, she sounds exhausted.
We talked a little about Thanksgiving and how to find blessings and gratitude when your whole world has been slowly crumbling for the last 4 years. She laughed dryly and weakly joked that she’ll be drinking some holiday cheer to help her through it.
This is a rough time of year for many folks. The author of the What’s Your Grief? blog post, “Thanksgiving Grief: finding gratitude when you’re anything but grateful” wrote honestly about how she felt about this time of year: “I know the dread for the holidays can color the lens through which we see the world, keeping us fixated on the loss and pain above all else.” The truth about “the holidays” and grieving doesn’t come any plainer than that!
What can you do to take your focus away from the loss and pain and put it where it can do you some real good (for yourself and everyone around you)? Begin to practice gratitude earnestly; not just one day of the year – but every day.
A Quick (Personal) Aside
I actually became reacquainted with the practice when I took on the role of my ex-husband’s caregiver. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 2012. After 13 years of being divorced, we were (at times uneasy) friends and he turned to me for help. I saw this as an opportunity to heal old wounds – and (despite the horrors of it all) it was. By the time he died (just a few minutes after midnight, on the 16th day of June, 2015); we were able to say “I love you” and mean it. Certainly not in the way we did way back in 1985 when we were ‘dating’; it was richer and deeper. Despite how hard the last two and a half years had been, I was (and still am) truly grateful for the chance to walk that horrible ‘road’ with him.
Today, our sons are grown. One is happily married with a baby on the way (my first grandchild!); the other is enjoying his professional life. Life is quieter, less stressful; there’s plenty of ‘room’ to continue my practice. And while it’s not work, per se, the holidays can make feeling gratitude a whole lot harder. (But it’s still possible!)
The Practice of Gratitude
The value of practice is well-known, but I think Martha Graham said it best: “Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.” (Source) Learning how to be more grateful is well worth the (daily) effort. That’s right: the practice requires commitment and dedicated focus. So says Victoria Maxwell, in the humorously (yet honestly) titled 2012 Psychology Today post, “Harness Gratitude in 9 Steps to Feel Less Lousy: How to Practice Gratitude When You Feel Like Crap”:
“Like any other skill, it takes practice and a bit of effort to develop it. So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I’ve discovered, surprise of all surprises, when I focus (for 5 minutes even) on finding the feel of grateful (‘affective’ gratitude) for one person, or thing or happenstance, my world shifts, just a tiny bit and I feel better. And don’t we all want to feel just a little bit better?”
Yes, we do; and the practice of gratitude can work wonders. Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of two of my favorite books, Simple Abundance: A Day Book of Comfort and Joy and The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude spoke of the power of feeling thankful and appreciative: “Gratitude is the most passionate transformative force in the cosmos”. She also assured readers of this transformation: “if you give thanks for five gifts every day, in two months you may not look at your life in the same way as you might now.”
What else can you do in your practice of gratitude, besides taking the time to write down the people and things you’re appreciative of? I like this tip, from Barrie Davenport’s “How to Practice Gratitude When You Don’t Feel Like It”:
“Pick a daily ‘savor.’”
She suggests, once you’ve written your appreciations, you should “pick one item each day to reflect on more deeply and to savor fully. Get really specific and detailed, and try to recapture positive memories you can write about. After you’ve written about your feelings and memories, read what you’ve written, close your eyes, and sit with your positive, grateful feelings.”
Another tip I like is to create (daily) rituals of gratitude in your life. The most common one is reciting a daily prayer of thanks and appreciation. But, if you’re not the praying type, the simple act of saying “thank you for another day to learn, grow and help others” upon waking may be ritual enough to put you into the gratitude mindset.
Remember too, these words, from Sarah Ban Breathnach; a reminder of exactly why we need to learn how to feel gratitude: “Gratitude holds us together even as we’re falling apart.”
A daily practice of gratitude can help to erase the heartaches (and hold you together); not only as the holidays approach, but all year long.