There have been several occasions in my life where people who care about me have tried their best to shove a silver lining down my throat, even when it tasted more like copper. I’m guessing you can probably relate.
The girl or guy of your dreams just left you and your buddy reassures you, “Plenty of fish in the sea, mate. Now you finally have freedom!”
You just had a write-off car accident and your insurance agent tells you, “Well, at least you weren't hurt, and now you can get a cool new car!”
You just failed an exam and your friend, who incidentally aced the test, tells you, “It’s all good. Failure builds character.” That characterless asshole.
This may sound a lot like people offering perspective, but it’s actually something far more sinister and irritating. They're attempting to turn our head to see, amidst our suffering, what we have to be grateful for.
I don't know about you, but it’s in those moments that I feel like I'd be pretty grateful for the chance to punch them in the mouth.
“But… but… Dev, gratitude is awesome! Everyone talks about it as such a fundamental tenet for living a more productive and meaningful life. Don’t you think you're being a bit cynical and, you know, ungrateful, by berating its value?”
For sure gratitude has helped me immensely through my recent turmoils, and throughout my life in general. It’s not gratitude in and of itself I have an issue with, but rather the reverence it’s given as an elixir you can shoot straight into your veins, particularly in the self-help world, in moments of despair.
Many people are awfully quick to jump into someone else’s grieving process and point out what they're supposedly not being grateful for. This is often premature and disregards the necessity and value of grieving and acknowledging the pain of losing something we care about.
“In the end, love and grief are intertwined; we can't have one without the other. Grieving involves confronting the totality of our relationship with the person, along with all of our many and conflicting feelings; holding onto the good memories & joyful moments, grieving for what was and what wasn't and what could never be.” — Melanie Greenberg PhD, clinical psychologist and writer
Grief isn't just about losing a loved one though. It can be about the loss of anything that we invest our sentiments into; anything we give meaning to. When we grieve, we allow the deepest parts of our heart and soul to acknowledge that meaning and value, and the sentiments that we invested into that which we lost. In the grieving itself, we consciously give ourselves permission and courage to continue loving anyway.
It’s perhaps one of the saddest things I've confronted in my life, to see beautiful people shrivel in fear of loss, to the point that they would rather be alone, invisible, cold and emotionless than have to deal with the grief of losing something or someone they had given their heart to. They believe that there is strength in detachment, as if it’s the same thing as non-attachment in the spiritual and philosophical sense of the word.
Non-attachment is bred from self-esteem and self-sufficiency, and strengthens our ability to love openly and freely. Detachment stems from a fear of connection and vulnerability, and disconnects us from others.
So, what does all this have to do with gratitude?
I've found nothing quite as useful in encouraging and fostering gratitude than allowing ourselves to grieve openly and honestly.
Dean Koontz wrote beautifully, in his novel Odd Hours:
“Grief can destroy you — or focus you. You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end in death, and you alone.
OR you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn’t allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it.
But when it’s over and you’re alone, you begin to see that it wasn't just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill. It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it.
The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can’t get off your knees for a long time, you’re driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss.
And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life.”
And so I've come to appreciate that loving openly, embracing the pain of loss, and grieving honestly, is itself a pure expression of gratitude.
The next time you're hurting for something you’ve lost and someone encourages you to be grateful for everything else you still have, be immensely grateful that you have people who care about you. Say thank you.
And then consider turning to them and letting them — or maybe just yourself — know, “Yes, and I’m grateful for this pain and grief too, for it helps me remember my infinite capacity to love.”
And don't punch them in the mouth.
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson