Some thoughts on gratitude
It was the fall of 2012, a couple months after the crash. For the past month or so, I had been reading a daily devotional that I had found on my mom’s bookshelf. I had given it to her for her last birthday and I had been reading it faithfully since finding it. The passages had become a source of comfort for me and I looked forward to the brief moments of solace from my intense pain and grief that reading those words every morning brought to me. The devotions seemed to fit everything that was going on in my life at the moment, just like they had for my mom when she had started reading it.
Then, just like life can suddenly go from beautiful to broken in the blink of an eye, the devotions on those pages did the same. In an instant, I was frustrated and angry at the words I was reading. Why, you ask? Well, I can sum it up in one word. Gratitude.
The devotional had themes and that week’s theme was gratitude. Because, really, how dare a devotional that is meant to be healing and uplifting, share a message of gratitude? Right? Didn’t they know that grieving people would be reading this book? What do people smack dab in the grips of intense pain need to know about gratitude? I’d be lying if I said a few choice words didn’t fly out of my mouth.
Day in, day out. The message of gratitude seemed to drag on F-O-R-E-V-E-R. I argued with the devotional every morning. “Surely, this wasn’t meant for grievers” was the core of the one-sided argument I had become engaged in. “Really,” I would think. “Easy to be grateful when things are good. Surely, you can’t expect me (or any others that are hurting) to be grateful after experiencing profound loss.” And on and on it went inside my head. Finally, after a few days of the reading about gratitude, I had had enough. I read the day’s passage and in a fit of desperation, I looked to the heavens (from my bathroom mind you) and screamed (yes, out loud)–“FINE! I FUCKING GET IT! I’LL BE GRATEFUL!” (Yeah, God has gotten to witness some stellar moments from me over the years. Gratefully, he is patient, kind, loving, and forgiving.) Another gut-wrenching moment of surrender had befallen me (one of many in my life) and I vowed–half-heartedly, of course–to give practicing gratitude a try. Long story short. . . it worked. Even in my deepest moments of hopelessness and despair, I began to find moments of comfort and peace when I viewed the world through a lens of gratitude and not my own pain. Go figure. Maybe God was on to something here.
Some thoughts on service
Some time later the devotional moved to a theme of service. Yeah, cue the first part of this story here. “Really,” I thought. “You want me to serve others when I’m grieving. Surely, you can’t be serious. I can barely take care of myself at the moment and you want me to help somebody else?” Again, on and on it went. Although slightly less dramatic this time around, I experienced another moment of surrender in my bathroom and vowed (yes, half-heartedly again) to find some way to serve others. I wasn’t capable of much, but I dug deep and did what I could–I said a prayer for somebody other than myself, sent words of encouragement to somebody in need, or donated money to causes I supported. Again (surprise, surprise). . . it worked. Viewing the world through a lens of service had given me small moments of reprieve from my grief, just like practicing gratitude had. Through each new moment of comfort and peace that I experienced, I began to gain some hope that healing would be possible. I remember thinking how good God was at this stuff.
A few more thoughts
I’d like to say that it was my grief-fogged brain that kept me from listening to those first few messages in that devotional, but I don’t think that would be entirely truthful. Besides my own stubbornness in not always listening, I came to learn that much of the traditional literature out there surrounding loss and healing doesn’t always talk about gratitude and/or service as part of the arsenal of tools that we have at our disposal as we begin to move forward. After all, it seems paradoxical to practice gratitude and serve others when we are suffering from incredible pain ourselves. Or does it?
Since those darkest of days in the beginning of my grief journey, I have learned more about the power of gratitude and service than I ever thought imaginable. And. . . I’m still learning. I’d like to tell you that my grief journey is done but I really feel like in some ways it’s just beginning. The numbness of the first year slowly faded and life got very real for me in year two. VERY REAL. I still find myself feeling like I am going backwards some days even though I know in my heart that I am always slowly inching forward. It’s in those real times, those painful times, those times when I feel like I am heading down the rabbit hole of despair that I focus even more on being grateful, for everything. I have found that as time has gone on, gratitude and service have become innate functions of my very being. I have been so transformed on the inside from these practices that I can’t imagine not viewing life through the beautiful lenses that I have been given–even on the worst of days.
Start simply and grow
If you are reading this and you are in the early stages of healing, it’s very important to note that you might not want to hop right in and tackle things new things right now. Those first few weeks after a loss are so extremely difficult. Just getting out of bed (or not) is hard enough, let alone trying to add anything else to your plate. In time, though, you will want more. You will want more than simply surviving, you will want to thrive. That’s when gratitude and service will eventually come in. Start simply where you are at and grow from there.
As we head into November you will see an explosion of all things gratitude–challenges, journal writing, Facebook memes etc. If you aren’t practicing gratitude regularly, now may be the perfect time to start. If you are already mindfully practicing gratitude (or trying to), think about how you can move your gratitude practice into one of service. If you are already practicing both, I challenge you to kick it up a notch or ten. The most important thing to remember is to do what you are capable of. Some days, it still takes all I can muster to get through the day. Other days, it would take kryptonite to bring me down. Remember, even on our best days, we can’t do everything all of the time. Learn your limits, use your gifts, and serve accordingly. . . all the while giving thanks. Then, be prepared for your life to change. God is really good at this stuff.