"Grief is the price we pay for love."
Grief and Gratitude are two powerful emotions that might appear to be on opposite “spokes” of the emotional wheel, but the two often coexist and can bring comfort and healing on your Grief Journey.
Everyone’s Grief Journey is unique to them, but the grief can feel more intense or complicated in circumstances like the holiday season. We recently celebrated our first major holiday, Thanksgiving, without Larry. Much to my relief, we all agreed it was a beautiful celebratory time where we all enjoyed being home together… We felt very connected and comforted by continuing our traditions and just being together.
That said, moments of intense grief would often come unexpectedly, sometimes triggered by a specific event, such as the awkwardness around sitting down to eat Thanksgiving dinner, Larry not being at the head of the table, and wondering who was now going to take that seat. I must confess, I left the dining room under the pretense of being busy in the kitchen, so that that decision could be made by others. Upon returning to the dining room, our son Anso had taken that seat, and while it was jarring at first, I was able to slip into a space of gratitude as I was reminded that I didn’t have to make the decision myself.
Grieving can occur for many different reasons. Nearly everyone has experienced some form of grief that wasn’t directly related to the death of a loved one. For example, many have grieved the end of a relationship, a home, a version of themselves that existed before an event like the birth of a child, an injury, or a traumatic experience, or the possibility of a relationship that doesn’t exist, such as one with an absent parent.
The complication of grieving the loss of a loved one with Alzheimers is, you’ve been grieving your loved one for many years while in their very presence. I often use the term “My Larry,” and for me that represents the man I fell in love with, the things we enjoyed, and the life we had before Alzheimer’s. I grieved “My Larry,” for many years as that man slipped away, despite his physical presence. While the loss of the physical presence can create what can almost feel like a vacancy in your day to day life, the real grief is in all the years you lost while they were still physically here. For me, the grief centers around how we stopped traveling together, having a social life, going to concerts, or even being able to listen to music at home, because as his Alzheimer’s progressed, he wasn’t comfortable with music or even silence, and was really only comfortable with the tv on. Despite the last few difficult years, I am very grateful for the years we spent together and the beautiful memories we created as a family.
Saturday, November 25th, was our wedding anniversary. The family rallied around me, we had a tree trimming party, and watching it all through the eyes of our two-year-old grandson Silas, made it all magical and positive… I kept thinking, “There is so much to be grateful for.”
It felt like life had expanded with togetherness, connection, laughter, and the busyness of the traditions such as decorating for Christmas, cooking, and some competitive Monopoly. When I returned home from taking Zane, the last one to leave, to the airport on Sunday, it felt like things had constricted. While I was grateful that each of the kids had something going on later that day, like activities with romantic partners, events to go to, and even their own house to decorate (I was invited, but chose to be alone to process my own grief), the feeling of loneliness was a stark contrast to the eventful week.
I’m not going to lie, my first reaction was just to make myself busy or go to sleep in order to avoid my feelings of grief. Instead, I took time to just sit in the pain and process. I also went through our wedding pictures as well as the pictures from the weekend, and when the tears flowed, I did nothing to stop them. After a time, when I felt I had moved through the grief and felt a sense of emotional depletion, I allowed myself to have some comfort food, snuggle up on the sofa with my blanket, and binge watch tv.
Last week, I wrote an in-depth blog about our first Thanksgiving without Larry and how we are experiencing the complex emotions that come with grief and coping around the holidays… Writing it all out helped me process those thoughts and feelings, and if it helps even one person on their Grief Journey, that’s all I can hope for.
Throughout your Grief Journey, it might feel unnatural to practice gratitude. We are dealing with the loss of our loved one, why would we be grateful for that? While it may seem unrealistic to practice gratitude in the midst of grief, it can actually be beneficial in a multitude of ways.
Five Benefits of Practicing Gratitude on your Grief Journey:
1. Focusing on the positive improves mood and alleviates painful emotions.
When we experience significant loss, it can feel like nothing matters anymore, and there is nothing left to live for… In times like these, it's important to remember what we still have. Reminding ourselves of all the people we love can help lift us out of feelings of hopelessness and depression. For me, the kids and I have all been together as a family three times now since Larry’s death, and focusing on them and those times together has carried me through some really “down” days.
Practicing gratitude is shown to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, the “happiness hormones”, which can boost your mood, help alleviate depression, and ease other painful emotions, even if it’s temporary…But the practice of doing it regularly builds over time, and can condition you to naturally reflect more on the positive and less on the negative.
2. Connecting with those you are grateful for alleviates loneliness.
When we focus more of our mental energy thinking about those people in our lives we are grateful for, we are more likely to reach out and connect with them, which then alleviates some of the loneliness we may be feeling.
Aside from close family and friends, is there anyone else in your life who you may be close with now but didn't really know before your loss, and have made a connection with them because of your loss? For example, my new friend, Cathy, who had lost her husband suddenly several years ago, while I knew her in passing, reached out to me directly wanting to take me to lunch, share her experience, and be present to allow me to talk about my own. Hearing about her Grief Journey and the life she has built for herself since her husband’s passing inspired me to be more optimistic about my own future.
3. Sharing stories about your late loved one with friends and family can bring great comfort.
When it feels like others have forgotten our loved one or avoid talking about them, it is often because they don’t want to make it harder on us, not because they have forgotten or don’t still think about the person.
For me, there have been times in my life when I am with someone weeks or months after they have lost a loved one and been hesitant to share or talk about their loved one for fear of making them sad. Now that I’m the one who has lost the loved one, I understand that it's more of a positive than I had realized. Remembering stories and talking about those you have lost with a close friend or relative who can help you along the way and share their experience with grief is a powerful way to keep your loved one “close” and bring comfort in the midst of grief.
Sharing my blog series, Alzheimers, The Long Good-bye, has helped me because I have heard from so many people, some I already knew and others I have never met, that reading about my journey helps them feel less alone. Because I’m someone who values helping others, it's been one of the most beneficial things I’ve done for my own self-care since Larry’s passing.
4. Practicing gratitude regularly provides physical benefits.
Practicing gratitude has many positive physical benefits as well, including better sleep, digestion, metabolic function, and a stronger immune system. Gratitude can also decrease cortisol, the primary stress hormone. On a Grief Journey, it is common to stop prioritizing your physical health, so think of gratitude as a way to improve your physical health through mindset… Not only may you experience improved digestion and sleep, but when you feel happier and your mood improves, you are more likely to get more exercise and live a healthier lifestyle.
For example, the Monday after Thanksgiving, I woke up feeling “down in the dumps”... the weather was cold and gray, and I still had some things to organize and put away after the weekend… I just felt like going back to bed! Instead, I sat on the bed, read a few paragraphs of a Spiritual text, listed ten things I was super grateful for, and focused on my breath. Within minutes, I started to feel better. It helped me to get started on my day, and I felt so much better that I actually scheduled a workout for later in the day and ended the day feeling terrific.
Many of the things we take for granted are the things we are most grateful for… For example, I listed my warm blankets and cozy bed, hot running water, Thanksgiving leftovers, having a beautiful office to return to work to, how much better I have felt since working out the last eight months, my assistant Olivia who is always there for me, my ability to sign my grandson, Silas, and I up for a toddler gymnastics class, my wonderful home office where I get to work one or two days a week, the Christmas tree the family and I had decorated over the weekend (maybe our best one ever), and that I had a plumber coming to fix my shower drain. This list was so positive, I’m feeling even better just writing/reading it now and I felt great to begin with!
5. Practicing gratitude regularly can improve self-esteem, helping you feel better about yourself, your future, and your place in the world.
Feeling grateful for yourself and how strong you are through everything you have been through is a strong reminder of your own importance and purpose in life. A positive mindset can also help us develop resilience, because when we face adversity or challenges, we handle it with an, “I can do it,” attitude. We are also more likely to accept failures as a part of life and the times when we fail as isolated incidents where we happen to fail, rather than letting it undermine our sense of self.
How to Practice Gratitude On Your Grieving Journey
1. Take breaks whenever you feel negative emotions creeping in.
Rather than ignoring those feelings or trying to bury them, allow yourself to experience them without judgment. When you feel those emotions beginning to arise, pause to breathe, feel the emotion, let the tears flow, and let it pass naturally. Throughout the process, remember that you wouldn’t be feeling those emotions at all if you hadn’t had the opportunity to love in the first place. Allow yourself to be grateful for the love you and your loved one shared, and do this as many times a day as you need to… No amount of times is too many.
2. Create a “Glimmer List.”
A “glimmer” is a term that defines the opposite of a trigger… It’s often a spontaneous positive thought, feeling, or memory that brings about positive emotions and memories. This list can consist of your happy place, a positive reminder that brings you peace, or happy memories you share with your loved ones who passed away. When you are struggling, pause what you are doing, find a comfortable position, refer to your Glimmer List, and visualize those happy moments in your mind. Focus on your breathing and visualizing those moments with your mind’s eye, and let the emotions flow through you.
3. Connect with a group for support.
When Larry passed away, I joined a Facebook group called, “Surviving the Loss of a Spouse, Soulmate,” and even though I have never posted anything in the group, simply reading other people’s stories has brought me a sense of peace and connection. Many in the group have lost their spouses to drug overdoses and suicide, often at a very young age, and have young families. Reading about those horrible experiences often “triggers” me to feel so much gratitude that Larry had a long life, our kids had the chance to grow up with him, and that when he passed, it was fast and painless. At the end of the blog, I have linked Facebook groups for different types of grief support.
Practicing gratitude won't make grief disappear, but it can ease feelings of sadness, regret, anger, depression, and other painful emotions.
Remember, depression can develop after prolonged periods of time, but grief in and of itself is not depression, and in my opinion, should not be treated as such, particularly in the beginning of the grief process, unless there are strenuous circumstances. Keep in mind, I’m not a medical professional, but in my twenty years of working with clients and my own Grief Journey, I don’t believe that “medicating” grief is always the answer. In my experience, that can lead to unresolved grief that will rear its ugly head, sometimes very unexpectedly and even years later.
I once had a client who lost his beloved mother and upon her death, his traditional Japanese father insisted on “no tears,” and to “soldier on”... More than three years later, my client was on an international conference call when he spontaneously burst into tears. The crying that persisted for several days resulted in him being taken to the emergency room… there just didn’t seem to be any reason for it. He was referred to me by a nurse and rather quickly through our work together, I helped him to recognize that suppressing the emotion and energy of grief, while in the short-term seemed fine, would not work in the long-term, as evidenced by his overwhelming tears and sadness. Because years had passed, he didn’t immediately connect the dots between his overwhelming sadness and the suppressed grief.
While it may save us from pain right now, pain is a natural part of the grieving process and cannot be “hacked”. Although practicing gratitude is not going to end your grief or sadness, it can be a source to help you feel comfort and support when you have hard days and is a positive way to cope and remember your loved one.
Facebook Groups for Grief Support:
Grief: Releasing Pain, Remembering Love & Finding Meaning: https://www.facebook.com/groups/DavidKessler/
Loss of a Child: https://www.facebook.com/groups/tcflossofachild/
Sibling Grief Support: https://www.facebook.com/groups/siblingloveforever
Pregnancy Loss, Stillbirth & Miscarriage Support: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Pregnanylossstillbirthandmiscarriage
Grief Support Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/398126720350723/
Loss of a Parent Grief for Those in their 20s and 30s Support: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1957046684399806