Bev Meyer was standing at the bedside of her dying father when she felt an emotion she hadn’t anticipated: gratitude.
Broken from years of heavy drinking and felled by a massive stroke, her father lay motionless, unable to communicate. As their troubled relationship drew to an inevitable close, Bev hung her head and cried, grieving as much for the relationship that had eluded them as for his impending death. Then, inexplicably, the man who couldn’t speak and could barely move reached up and gently touched her cheek. It was a final act of love and comfort that bridged a rocky history, and Bev was filled with an overwhelming outpouring of gratitude and relief.
“I had many years of not feeling that love, so I carry that with me,” says Bev, of Oregon, Wisconsin. “I was so grateful that I was there for his last breath and could have that moment. Without that gratitude, I don’t know how I could ever get through my grief.”
Although both gratitude and grief are common emotions, we don’t necessarily think of them as going hand in hand. However, gratitude can provide a powerful source of healing during the grieving process.
“Gratitude reminds us that we can find happiness even when life is painful and messy, as it often is,” says Kingsley Gallup, MA, LPC and author of Project Personal Freedom. Presenting at the International Positive Psychology Association’s Fourth World Congress in 2015, she explained, “With gratitude, we can embrace our grief and burn it as fuel for our journey.”
Regardless of the source of our grief—whether it’s a recent loss or a long-standing injury—Kingsley says that practicing gratitude is an effective way to reinstate joy in our lives.
“For anyone who’s grieving, isn’t that what we want? To feel joyful again?” she asks. “Gratitude heals. I see it in my clients all the time, and it has healed me in my own journey.”
Going Against the Grain
Practicing gratitude while suffering with grief doesn’t feel instinctual or natural, she acknowledges, and many clients tell her that practicing gratitude “seems unrealistic.” Kingsley says that even though we are not hard-wired to feel thankful while suffering, adopting a gratitude practice can help us move through the grief process more purposefully.
“Grief is part of the human condition,” she says, noting that grief comes from many types of losses. It can be the “loss of dreams, time, self esteem, enthusiasm, relationships and loved ones.” While the inevitability of grief is universal, each loss has its own nuances: losing a parent is different from losing a child; sudden, unexpected loss from a traumatic event will affect us differently than a death that was expected.
Kingsley says making the decision to heal, and then taking action, is a key step. With the loss of a loved one, actions such as writing a letter of gratitude and acknowledging all the things you loved and appreciated about the person—and also what you learned and how they changed you—can be a powerful tool for healing and transformation.
“There’s something unique about the deliberate act of writing that letter,” Kingsley says. “Then share it with a trusted individual or during a service or ritual; it’s very healing.”
Regardless of the magnitude and depth of grief, Kingsley says, gratitude can close the gap between pain and peace, between grief and joy.
“We grieve because we so deeply appreciated our loved one,” she says. “Gratitude bridges the past, present and future; it allows us to retrieve the positive from the past, and connects us with the present, and we embrace our good fortune.” And, ultimately, it delivers the future as we begin moving forward with optimism.
When Holidays Hurt
Grief is often magnified during the holiday season, and Kingsley believes the power of gratitude is also heightened during this time. She says using “the immeasurable power of gratitude” is a powerful tool that can help us cope with the emotions that accompany the holidays.
“We can count blessings. We can count them daily—and deliberately,” she says. “Perhaps we will create a holiday tradition around blessings. Perhaps we will give gifts of gratitude. With gratitude, we can find beauty in our holiday sadness.”
However, it’s equally important to acknowledge the grief as it arises.
“We can lean into our grief as opposed to trying to avoid or outrun it,” she says. “Leaning into grief is about going within. By leaning into it, we actually move through it.”
And, to help move through the complicated and challenging emotions that accompany the journey of grief, she says the holidays can provide the kind of reminders we need to celebrate what we have even as we acknowledge what’s been lost.
“With gratitude, we focus on what is present,” Kingsley says. “We focus on the here and now. We allow ourselves to feel the pain, knowing that we wouldn’t hurt so much if we didn’t care so much.”
She said thinking of the relationship as ongoing through memories provides a profound healing energy.