When my ex-husband died two years ago I found myself an absolute mess.
Our daughter was 16, just at the start of her adult life.
The world crumbled.
We had danced a ring around her life the best we could, given the circumstances of our youth when we’d had her and the trajectories our lives had taken following our split from the time she was four.
Aside from death itself, the nature of his passing was not an easy thing to understand or come to terms with.
I was falling apart, unravelling, so I scheduled an appointment with a doctor who had been our family practitioner from the time I was pregnant up until my daughter eased into her teenage years.
This was a woman who’d known my family intimately, who’d performed my lady exams and felt my breasts for lumps, who’d examined my ex’s prostate, who’d diagnosed strep and eased the burden of high fever days when our daughter was a child. She’d seen us from the very beginning of our lives together as a family—I’d marched into her office at the age of 18, heavy in my pregnancy, and told her pointedly with the blind confidence of youth, “I’m having a home birth. I’ll be back when my baby is born.” She hadn’t even flinched.
Now, 17 years later, I sought her care in the matter of death, this time with much more humility.
The day of the appointment, I sat wide-eyed in her new office with a magazine on my lap flipping blindly though the slick pages.
“Andrea?” a nurse asked through the door leading to the exam rooms. After the requisite blood-pressure and pulse readings, I waited quietly, alone on the examination table, churning inside myself.
I was on the edge of my emotions, tears dripping down my cheeks from time to time, the tightness in my chest seething with each crinkle of the white paper beneath my weight as I sat there in discomfort. When my doctor walked into the room like the fresh breeze she had always been, she had the air of a busy day about her. “How are you? How is Cassidy? How is Joe?”
“Joe died,” I said, and the floodgates opened.
Fran poked her head out the door and conferenced briefly with her assistant—whatever had been of utmost importance just seconds before slipped away, and the patience and compassion of her profession rose to the top of her face.
After a good while and many tissues, she prescribed me a way out of my pain.
The first was to find a meditation teacher.
The second was to seek out the energetic healing work of an elder Buddhist woman in town.
The third was to keep a gratitude journal.
Of the three, the journaling has been the biggest boon to my mental and emotional movement forward.
“Start small,” she advised. “Be grateful for a flower or the sun on your face. Don’t go reaching too far at first. Just be thankful for whatever it is you can find in the moment that brings you peace.”
The practice of writing my gratitude has changed my life immensely.
For anyone suffering grief, loss, confusion or pain—which is all of us, as humans—I want to share with you the top three ways in which my life has benefitted by keeping a gratitude journal in the hopes that you, too, will find some solace for whatever it is that strains at your heart.
Benefits of keeping a gratitude journal.
1. Even in the midst of utmost pain, there is still beauty in the world worth paying attention to when we are ready to look outside of ourselves.
Despite my own grief, it was a beautiful spring that year. I spent my days writing in the garden, watching the clouds build and dissipate, watching the dandelions spread over the thick grass, savoring the early asparagus that launched upwards towards the sun. I found myself grateful for the world outside of my own pain—the singing birds, the sunny day, the warm air on my skin.
It didn’t take away my pain, indeed I cried as I wrote in that first version of a journal every day, but it opened my perception of the world slowly, in each beautiful moment I could muster my attention around.
2. Our own thoughts and preoccupations limit what we see and hear—when we write our gratitude, however small, we can become present to the unfolding moment.
When I started to record the mundane things I could observe and be thankful for, like the birds chirping or the wind rustling the new leaves in the trees, my own grief melted away for small moments, and I became as Emerson’s transparent eyeball.
“I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Letting go of myself to merge with the natural world was slight comfort as I nursed my losses.
Each moment that I walked through the darkness of grief, wondering how I would care for my teenage daughter, wondering how and why Joe died, wondering why I was being tested like this, my mind would jump in time-travel clips to the past, replaying moments of life over and over again.
When I wrote in gratitude, I could hear the day, feel the world, smell the spring, taste the air heavy with pollen.
I could fall out of the past and drop into the present.
I saw life going on around me. My own sense of self would melt away for moments more and more extended as I worked through the practice of gratitude, finding the present moment in my small observations of beauty.
3. We can take responsibility for our feelings and personal growth when we decide to choose surrender over violence in our minds.
I was angry at Joe for dying. I was angry that his choices had left us without him. I was angry that he would miss our daughter’s graduation, her next birthday and all the birthdays that would follow, her wedding, her children, her life.
I can feel my heart clenching even as I write the words.
And yet, I had a hand in the course of our relationship and his subsequent path, more than I wanted to admit when he’d been alive.
In writing my gratitude, I found moments between my ex and I that I’d forgotten, that I’d glossed over, that I’d demonized years ago.
I began to come to terms with my own role in our relationship, seeing those places where he’d stepped up to work around my own limitations. Due to anger, blame and the story I’d spun in my mind, I hadn’t been generous, forgiving or compassionate with him while he was alive.
As I wrote and wrote in gratitude for his role in my life, for the gifts he had left me to unwrap as jewels of self-discovery, I became less terrible to myself and to him in my mind.
I let the emotions bubble and simmer.They began to evaporate, day by day.
Two years later, I find myself more able to love him now than in the 14 years we’d been apart.
Perhaps I am more in love with myself.
This is the greatest gift journaling in gratitude has offered me.
Whether we are in pain, suffering loss or are a perfect picture of happiness, writing in gratitude is a gift we can give ourselves and everyone we touch every day.
The more we can bring appreciation into our life, the easier it becomes to unhook from the dark stories we tell ourselves about who you are or who we were; the easier it becomes to see our part in the ever-unfolding world around us.
It is necessary to feel into the dark human emotions that break our heart, however it is just as necessary to make room for what light can break us open to the beauty of each day.
Indeed, life is precious. We are precious.
Seek for gratitude and you will find your own beauty reflected back to you.