Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Grief and Gratitude

Grief and gratitude? Bereavement and thankfulness? Aren’t those contradictions in terms? I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question. But I do believe that being able to be grateful for the good in life – even in the face of overwhelming loss – is a great part of what makes a person resilient.

Just about everyone enjoys having a reason to be thankful, whether for some kind of material well-being or for an emotional or spiritual comfort. I am certainly no exception; a difficult childhood taught me that I should never take what I have for granted. And I have so much. A good marriage, wonderful children, the incredible bonus of grandchildren, a close relationship with my sister and her son – it goes without saying that I thank God every day for my family. Friendship, attractive clothes, plentiful and nourishing food, comfortable shelter – even living in a small enough place to be able to enjoy the beauty and quiet of Nature whenever I have the time and the inclination – all these are incredible gifts.

Beyond the things I count as blessings, I’ve always loved the feeling of thankfulness – the visceral warmth that fills me when I reflect on the good in my life. I’ve found it to be an impressive antidote to the frustration, care, and worry. When I was the mother of five young children who populated an age range of just seven years, I sometimes – OK, I’ll admit it, often – felt as if my strength was giving out. Two of the girls, say, would be fighting, while a third was wandering through our three small rooms scattering a mixture of different puzzle pieces, a fourth climbing up the kitchen counter in order to get at the fruit I was saving for after dinner, and the fifth urgently needing to have her diaper changed. At times like this, taking a breath and remembering (for example) that I was lucky to conceive and bear children as easily as I could, would give me strength to go on, at least until the next crisis.

Even while our family was dealing with the myriad challenges posed by Timora’s leukemia, I was able to find reasons to be grateful. Timora’s doctor was outstanding, both professionally and as a human being. We belonged to a community that showered us with concern, emotional support, and any material help we needed. I even appreciated the fact that having a daughter with cancer simplified my priorities – if it was my day to take her to the hospital, it was clear that that was what I was doing that day, whatever other tasks awaited me at home or at work.

So you can imagine what a shock it was when my capacity for thankfulness seemed to disappear after Timora died. I couldn’t say “thank you” for anything. Grief and gratitude simply could not co-exist.

As I moved toward healing, my ability to be grateful returned – and expanded to embrace aspects of my life that I’d never thought of as candidates for conscious appreciation. Having had my existence turned upside down for so many years, I began to savor the small routines that, without thinking about it, I’d taken for granted before Timora became ill, and which were shattered after she died. As I wrote more than six years ago in the journal that makes up the second part of my memoir :

In the past few weeks, I’ve finally started feeling that the rhythm of our family’s life is starting to return to normal, and that I’m in synch with that rhythm. The children are now busy with their own lives – school and friends and after-school activities. Don has his own career and interests. And on a day like today, I can go to work and be fully engaged in what I do there. I can come home and take a nap, and feel good about doing something for myself. I can sit and read and feel that I’m not wasting time – I’m just spending it pleasantly. And I can be with whichever members of my family are at home or on the other end of the phone line, and just enjoy them. Now, that is something to be truly thankful for.”

My capacity for gratitude has continued to grow, and recently has entered a new phase. Now, I spend some time almost every day actively seeking things to appreciate. I do this when some part of my life seems not to be working out as I’d like it to – something hurts, for example, or I feel I’m not making enough progress with a client, or there’s no train service to Tel Aviv just when I wanted to visit my grandchildren – and it gives me a sense of proportion, reminds me what’s really important. But sometimes I spend time cultivating thankfulness for its own sake, just for the fun of it.

If you think about it, there’s no end of things to be grateful for. I sometimes scan my body, going through every one of its limbs and organs – even each bone – and thank God they’re all whole and working properly; and that I have access to excellent health care when they're not. I can sit and savor my relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. I have my mental health – I’m not depressed, bipolar, or psychotic, and I don’t suffer from OCD, panic, or any other anxiety disorder (I count each one separately), or an eating disorder, or anything else in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. I have the strength to walk and close friends to walk with regularly. I work at a job I love. I live in a democracy, and enjoy a high degree of personal security. My marriage wasn’t arranged for me, and being a woman has not in the least limited my freedom or opportunities. I can go even further – no one is forcing me to work in a blood-diamond mine, I wasn’t sold into sex slavery at the age of six, or ten, or sixteen….

You get the picture.

In the end, I believe, my grief has actually sharpened my sense of gratitude. Losing Timora has made me intensely aware of life’s fragility – together with that of just about everything that gives it meaning and brings me pleasure. I could easily go through my days fearing further loss. But instead, I deeply appreciate the blessings that remain with me.

And I thank God for that.

1 comment:

Judy said...

Gratitude expressed by someone from whom the universe has taken something as precious as a child is nothing short of an act of creation. To do that, one must have incredible character and hidden stores of joy.
Truly inspiring.