Here in the United States, we are two days away from Thanksgiving. November is typically a time when people turn their thoughts to gratitude. This year of a pandemic, civil unrest and political turmoil, it’s been a little harder for our country as a whole. As individuals, you may have experienced your own unrest and turmoil, perhaps even trauma and grief. Maybe you are struggling to find things to be grateful for. I want you to know: I see you.
Last Friday, the leader of my faith, Russell M. Nelson, invited us to flood social media with posts of gratitude, at least daily for one week. The hashtag #givethanks quickly skyrocketed to number one on Twitter. Facebook and Instagram posts are looking much more positive as well.
I was disappointed, however, by some who have chosen to mock, reprimand or shame those sharing gratitude and I am saddened by those who say that gratitude does not apply to those in pain. May I disagree?
Gratitude is a healing balm for broken hearts, a salve for wounded souls, and a way for us to look upward, even in our deepest distress. Gratitude and sorrow can co-exist.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard some suggest that we learn to be grateful for all of our hard stuff. I’m not going to suggest that you be thankful for abuse, trauma, grief, or a myriad of other really hard things. However, I am suggesting that even during those times, there will be glimmers of hope and ways to be grateful. And maybe, down the road, you might even be able to look back with gratitude.
On Thanksgiving weekend, 1988, I gave birth to our second child, a little girl we named Elizabeth. The morning after she was born, a doctor I did not know came into my hospital room and without waiting for my husband to get there (or even asking about him), this doctor proceeded to tell me, without fanfare or compassion, “I am very concerned about your daughter.” He then listed off a dozen things that were “wrong” with her, announced that her life would be short, maybe as short as a month or two, and then left the room. I had just become the mother of a special needs child.
I felt deep grief over the loss of what would have, could have, should have been. She would never meet the milestones parents celebrate with their children – walking, talking, reading, learning to ride a bike, making friends, graduating, falling in love. She would never grow up to wear my wedding dress (a strange thing to grieve, I realize now), never have children of her own.
While I was working my way through the grief (and my guilt over feeling grief, a longer story for another day), I felt the knife thrust in a little deeper each time someone would tell me to be grateful I had such a special child, to count my blessings because “special children have special parents!” I did not want to be special! I wanted to be normal!
But here’s the deal: I was still able to find things to be grateful for. I was grateful for sunshine that warmed me. I was grateful for a husband who grieved with me and supported me as we adjusted to our new normal. I was grateful for our toddler who gave me hugs and loves and who loved his baby sister intently. I was grateful for a vehicle that could take us safely to and from the many appointments we had in the early days.
Over time, my grief faded and my love for Elizabeth continued to grow. Long before she passed away at age 17, I was grateful for her, just as she was, and grateful for the many ways she blessed our family.
Some trials I never have and never will be grateful for. However, I have learned I can still find ways to be grateful in the middle of despair and later, I am often grateful for lessons learned, for empathy deepened and a heart softened.
I believe, as Terryl and Fiona Givens have said in their excellent book, “The God Who Weeps,” that “God does not instigate pain or suffering, but He can weave it into His purposes.”
Practicing gratitude helps us relieve depression, improves our immune systems and strengthens our connections with people around us. It literally changes your brain. Not only does gratitude release the feel-good hormones of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin but it also rewires synapses and helps us see more positives in our world. Gratitude changes our outlook on life and makes us happier!
This tender Thanksgiving may you find real gratitude and may you feel its healing power settle on your heart and in your lives. I am grateful to be a fellow traveler with you on this path.