The arrival of the Thanksgiving and winter holiday season each year asks us to harvest our blessings: to be grateful, to celebrate, and to spend time with friends and family as we shift towards winter. It can be a time of comfort or stress, security or drama, or all of the above and more.
For people in mourning, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas may feel alienating, confusing, painful, and meaningless. What is there to be grateful for when we have experienced an irreplaceable loss? How do we gather together and celebrate when someone’s absence from the table is glaring? Why toast to life’s plenty when our hearts are bereft?
To Give Meaning to Gratitude, Acknowledge the Struggles
Although gratitude has been shown to alleviate sorrow and stress, it is important first to acknowledge—but not dwell or ruminate on—the losses and struggles we have faced and continue to face. Recognition of our suffering gives meaning to our gratitude, and depth to our optimism. Otherwise, looking on the bright side can feel like an empty, insincere exercise that paves over our pain, rather than integrates it into our lives.
People often try to comfort the bereaved by imposing gratefulness on them: “At least he’s no longer suffering,” “be thankful for your own health,” or “she’s in a better place.” These common utterances may indeed offer comfort later on, but early into mourning as grievers grapple with the unfairness and nonsensical nature of death, these sayings sound cliché and have all the force of a road crew working with “good intentions” (and we know where that road leads). Rarely does counting the blessings of someone in grief help them feel accepted as they are, namely, in a state of grief.
We come to gratitude on our own schedule. Our own blessings are for us to count. Time plays a part in soothing the rawness of grief so that eventually, instead of blinding pain, we can feel a gentle thankfulness for what the departed brought into our lives while they were alive.
Likewise, we may also want to express gratitude for what the person who died took with them out of our lives.
Rarely does counting the blessings of someone in grief help them feel accepted as they are, namely, in a state of grief.
An Alternative Approach to Gratitude
This is not how we usually think of gratitude. We generally give thanks for what we receive, but being grateful for what we no longer receive (or endure) can ease our grief. Noting that loss has more than one side can help to broaden our grief-narrowed focus from what we miss to what relieves us.
For example, we may miss someone’s laughter, and we may not miss the feeling of dread whenever the phone would ring at night. Or, we may miss someone’s handiness around the house, and we may not miss the short temper. Similarly, we may miss the simple presence of a loved one, and we do not miss their suffering.
To acknowledge what we do not miss is not to speak ill of the dead or imply that we would not bring the beloved back in a heartbeat. Rather, the acknowledgment is to bring the departed back into full and vibrant color, to remember them the way we knew them in life, as well as separate our good memories of someone from the painful aspects of dying.
One Exercise for Acknowledging Loss and Expressing Gratitude
Here is an activity to try at home that many have found helpful. All it requires is a pen, index card, and around 15 minutes.
- Take the index card and number it 1 to 3 on both sides.
- On one side, write three things you miss about your person who died.
- On the other side, write three things you do not miss about your person who died.
This card can be kept nearby as a reminder throughout the day, or posted somewhere easily accessible. It may offer some help in calming a storm of grief by acknowledging loss while expressing gratitude.
If you are struggling with the loss of a loved one this season, compassionate support can help. Reach out to a licensed therapist for support in processing grief or loss.
© Copyright 2011 by Ivan Chan, MA, MFTi. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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