Ever found yourself recoiling from an off-handed comment to “Count your blessings,” or “Cultivate an attitude of gratitude?” If so, you are not alone. With the advent of the Thanksgiving holiday there will likely be a surge of advertisements and well-meaning people encouraging us to focus on what we are grateful for in our lives. This can be difficult to do on an average day filled with hassles and disappointments, never mind in the midst of grief. When someone you love dies, and everything feels wrong, it can seem nearly impossible to focus on what’s right in your world.
So, how do those who are grieving make sense of the disconnect between loss and gratitude? Is there any benefit to mustering the energy to be grateful while struggling with grief? While there is a long-standing tradition in the realms of literature, philosophy, and religion of painting gratitude as a virtue to be cultivated, gratitude as a subject of scientific inquiry is relatively new.
Current research shows that increased gratitude is associated with improvements in emotional and physical health. In a study of college students, researchers discovered that those who kept a daily record of what they were grateful for felt more optimistic about their lives, experienced fewer physical symptoms, and spent more time exercising. Other research correlates gratitude with feeling less isolated, a stronger immune response, lower blood pressure, and an increase in generosity and empathy for others.
Given this research, we invite participants in our peer support groups to share the full spectrum of their experiences, from challenges to celebrations. On any night, you’re just as likely to hear raucous laughter as watch someone cry, sometimes in the same moment. We recognize that asking those who are grieving to focus on what they are grateful for must be done in an environment that allows for open discussion about their pain and sadness. This experience of feeling heard and understood opens the door for those who are grieving to also recognize what is still comforting and nurturing in their lives.
If you’re interested in cultivating gratitude in your own life, here are some suggestions for practice:
- Start a daily gratitude journal. Write down 3-5 (or more) instances you’re grateful for each day.
- Write thank you cards (or letters or emails) on a regular basis. You might also consider writing one to the person who died, thanking them for what they contributed to your life.
- Thank yourself. This might mean writing yourself a thank you letter or just silently acknowledging what you’ve done for yourself or others.
- Reframe situations or behaviors that are challenging. This could look like taking a deep breath after someone cuts you off in traffic and thinking of reasons why they might be in such a hurry. Or maybe it means seeing your child’s refusal to clean up as a sign that they are having a hard day and struggling with finishing tasks rather than thinking of them as disrespectful/belligerent/etc.
What do you think of cultivating gratitude as a practice? What strategies work for you? We’d love to hear what you’ve discovered. Find us on Facebook to share more.
Emmons RA, et al. “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Feb. 2003): Vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 377–89.