the unquantifiable self

Unearthing Gratitude in Grief

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude. ~ A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Last November, I decided to take gratitude past the Thanksgiving table and start keeping a daily gratitude journal with my son. “Research shows that practicing gratitude can make you up to 25% happier!” I pitched. “But I’m already 100% happy,” he retorted, without missing a beat. He quickly got into the project, though. In fact, it’s often he who reminds me that we need to ‘do our gratitudes’ in the flurry of the bedtime routine.

The premise behind the power of a regular gratitude practice is based on positive psychology, which has shown that simply focusing on what’s good in our lives can make us happier. By putting your attention on, say, the joy you get from an almond latte instead of the guy who cut you off in traffic, your mind and body are better off. So far so good.

But what about when things aren’t going so well, or, worse, turn downright disastrous? How do we muster up gratitude in the midst of true turmoil? The magic of radical gratitude lies in cultivating the capacity to find gratitude even in moments of intense suffering.

As the Buddha taught, no home will remain untouched by loss. My son recently learned this poignant lesson firsthand, with the tragic death of one of his friends. Nothing shakes one’s sense of order in the world quite like the death of a child, which, as Ram Dass wrote, “leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts, as the fragile thread of our faith is dealt with so violently”.

The night of the little boy’s funeral, when it came time to write in our gratitude journal, for the first time since we’d started, my son wanted to skip it. Who could blame him? What on earth did we have to be grateful for on a day we had buried his nine-year-old friend?

“I’m grateful to have known him,” I began. “I was inspired by his humility and how he always went out of his way to help others.” I paused for a moment, and then added that I was glad that we’d been able to go to the funeral—to share in our mourning with the community and have the chance to say goodbye to our friend. And that I appreciated that the dads in attendance hadn’t held back their tears, which set a powerful example that it’s okay for men to cry.

I watched my son’s face as he began to understand that expressing gratitude was in no way to deny the depth of his sorrow—his heart could hold both simultaneously. “I’m grateful we were friends,” he offered, “and that we got to go skiing together.” “I’m grateful I was asked to sprinkle soil on the coffin,” he added, softly, referring to one of the burial rituals. “And I’m glad he was allowed to take his teddy bear with him…”

Gratitude did not curb our grief, nor was it meant to. But by accepting life in its entirety—even at its most incomprehensible—my son and I were able to soften into the experience of our pain, rather than blocking or trying to numb it.

Would that we could shield our children from the spectrum of heartache—from playground slights to coping with gut-wrenching loss. All we can do, however, is teach them how best to face the inevitable difficulties that life will bring. Practicing finding gratitude no matter what promotes an open-heartedness that enables us all to feel more deeply, and connect with one another in our shared humanity.

In the words of Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast,

We are never more than one grateful thought away from peace of heart.

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