Prayer, Creativity & Faith

Gratitude and Grief

Recently I was invited to lead a session on GRATITUDE AND GRIEF for a local organization called Dusk to Dawn Bereavement Services. I adapted that message to share with all of you here.

Years ago, as I sat beside Mom’s hospital bed, temporarily placed in ours dining room—listening to her breathe and knowing she was dying—I was desperate for some hope. Some beauty. Some kind of evidence that God was with us and the world wasn’t ending.

I’d recently picked up a copy of One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. She wrote that acknowledging all the beauty in our lives was like unwrapping the gifts that God has given us. She made a list of beautiful moments, working towards her goal of 1,000 recorded gifts, and discovered that living with gratitude transformed the way she saw things.

I held my “gifts” journal in my lap, trying to form pretty, flowery words about the beauty of the dust floating in the rays of colored light from the stained glass hanging in their window.

Ugh. Whatever. My soul still felt broken.

When writing down those moments did nothing for me, I deduced that gratitude was pointless. It didn’t change a thing. Like dominos, more conclusions followed: Maybe I was the problem. Maybe I wasn’t inherently good enough, maybe there was something lacking in me. I just didn’t have what it took to be able to feel those kind of positive emotions. Clearly, I am broken.

Years later, I was still struggling with losing mom and then my dad’s cancer returned after three years of remission. In what ended up being his last few weeks, I was distraught. How could I survive the loss of my other parent, knowing the heartbreak that came with losing Mom?

And then, strangely, when Dad died, my sister and I felt almost giddy with happiness. I was devastated—and yet at peace. Was it relief that he wasn’t suffering? Were we exhausted by the care we’d been giving? Maybe—but it was just so different than losing Mom. She fought it every step of the way, ticked off and unhappy about every bit of it. But my Dad handled the situation differently. Of course, he’d suffered when Mom suffered, so maybe it was a conscious choice to finish his life well. I am not really sure, but honestly, he always lived that way. All I know is that he accepted the situation, and he made sure to let everyone around him know how grateful he was.

When he met with the oncologist to confirm there was nothing they could do for him, he looked the man in the eye, shook his hand, and thanked him for his good bedside manner and for explaining things so well. When my sister and I brought him food, he marveled over the fact that we were willing to do these things for him when we had such busy lives. When people visited, he thanked them for his friendship and talked about how remarkable his girls were. He wasn’t afraid to show his own tears, and every single person left with tears of their own.

The sorrow I felt when Dad died was not just because I loved him so much, but because such a kind and generous person—who had made life so beautiful for so many people—was gone. And yet I also kept remembering moments with him that filled me with gratitude—for who he was, and for who he made me to be. I found myself dwelling in this place of thankfulness, and it helped. It didn’t remove the sorrow, but it helped balance it.

My friend Jodie, whose son was tragically killed by a drunk driver, says that in this world, grief and joy collide. It’s easy to give thanks when the kids are staying out of trouble, you’re feeling loving towards your spouse, finances are comfortable, temptation has stopped hounding you, your family and friends are healthy, and your faith is strong. We feel gratitude when things are good. We count our blessings.

However, in this life, the reality is that we will face loss. We will feel pain, and we will experience sorrow.
BUT we can ALSO have joy. And for me, the best way to experience that is by looking at all I do have, not at what I do not. Joy comes through expressing gratitude.

My best practice for this—for just about any kind of soul healing or growth—is journaling. Journal writing helps lower the cortisol that builds up in your body in response to stress, and the best form of gratitude journal that has ever worked for me is one that captures memories so I can go back and look later, and let myself remember all that I hold in my heart.

If the idea of keeping a journal gives you hives—either you don’t have time, you’re concerned about who might see it or you just can’t read your handwriting—there are other ways that don’t necessarily require writing in a notebook.

  • A list, daily, typed into your phone’s Notes app, of moments for which you are grateful
  • A paragraph or two about someone who showed kindness to you that day
  • Bits of memories, dreams, conversations recorded as a voice memo on your phone
  • Simply speak your gratitude out loud, to God or the universe or your family. Or call a friend.
  • Express your appreciation in a card you send through the mail.
  • Write your favorite things about a child on post-it notes in their lunchboxes. Whatever works for you.

In an effort to help you not get waylaid, like I did, by allowing my heart to disconnect from the beauty, let me share a few tips for meaningful gratitude journaling.

  • Notice details, but make it personal. Instead of the cute pom poms on your daughter’s knit hat, notice the way her face lights up in the middle of the knotted purple yarn when she sees her uncle Doug
  • Focus on the emotions, not the facts of what you see. The reason the dust motes floating in the golden light look so beautiful is because of the way they float peacefully, slowly — it feels like the world slowed to give me a special glimpse, it reminds me that there’s more to what’s happening than I see, and it makes me feel safe and secure, happily sheltered in my home, with a moment to relax, even if it’s just that one moment, and enjoy the beauty God has surrounded me with
  • Record the moments you will treasure later. Ever since my first child was born, I’ve wished I had a built-in memory camera which would allow me to freeze moments to pull them up later — how it felt when Anna wrapped her scrawny arms around my neck and wouldn’t let go, the way Bobby liked to hold my hand when we went to movies together, tidbits of daily conversation — all of those things make the past come alive again in my mind. And they’re things I never would have written down otherwise.

Some people—like my dad—may be predisposed to living with gratitude. Some are inclined to be thankful because of the way their family lived, or because of the assurances of their faith. For some of us it may be harder than for others.

True gratitude isn’t about ignoring the bad and trying to look on the bright side. It’s recognizing that there is more there besides the loss. And we’ll see it, and live with gratitude—which makes life more beautiful for us as well as those around us—if we’ll just pay attention.

Reflect (or feel free to share!): What other gratitude practices have you used, or what are some other options we might want to consider?

The entire journal is available to download from my website here for $5, or for $6.99 you can purchase a printed journal directly from Amazon here.

2 Responses to “Gratitude and Grief”

  1. Gretchen Clore says:

    So glad I saw your “teaser” on Facebook this morning. I enjoyed this blogpost very much…it was a great reminder for me today, especially. Bless you.

  2. Kelly O'Dell Stanley says:

    Thanks, Gretchen! <3

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