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Before I Could Practice Gratitude, I Had to Embrace My Grief

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced childhood abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

When I heard about gratitude lists as a practice in therapy, I thought, “Oh great, here we go again.” I’d been through this before — being told I’m depressed because I’m not grateful enough, not appreciative, simply not paying attention to the good parts of my life. Everyone from my family to the church to the school had the same answer to my depression and mood issues. I just needed to practice more gratitude. And now, therapy was telling me the same thing.

The reason gratitude as an answer to my emotional distress bothered me so much was because I felt as though I was well aware of the good parts of my life. I was aware of the material goods I owned or had access to, aware of the safety and security afforded to me, and aware of the social status I held in my community. I was appreciative of these things, but I was still constantly distressed and emotionally disturbed. Rather than looking for a missing piece to the puzzle, I was continually told to just keep trying: “it’ll get easier over time.”

It didn’t get easier over time. I did my best to be grateful for what I had, to focus on the gratitude, to focus on the good things, but it only made the screaming in my head get louder. I tried to act out my gratitude by being humble and generous, but everything kept getting worse. Before I even reached adulthood, I abandoned gratitude as just another self-help gimmick that doesn’t work.

Years later, after some time in therapy for childhood trauma, I came to the immensely painful conclusion that I was entirely walled off from my emotions. I had the ability to emote, but I didn’t have the ability to access, identify, or process any of the emotions I felt in my body. As I came to this realization, I observed how any emotional experience I had was interpreted by my body as distressing. Every emotion, whether positive or negative or neutral, caused me to feel upset. Before observing it, the upset feeling would often spiral into ongoing depressive and/or anxious states, even triggering suicidal ideation. But as I observed this phenomenon, the act of observing created space between me and the upset feeling, and I was able to allow myself not to react to it. And the more time and practice I’ve taken to observe this, the more I am able to discern what emotion(s) I’m experiencing and then learn how to process or take care of those emotions.

What I have come to understand through this learning is that hiding from the unattended grief I accumulated throughout my life has also hidden me away from my other emotions. The grief caused by child abuse, my parents’ divorce, my father’s absence, moving house and schools, my grandma’s passing, becoming an adult, losing my first cat, losing my health and mobility, and the general heartaches that come with life as a human being in this world; I hid from it all. When an emotion tries to come through, whether pleasant or unpleasant, my trauma reaction is to panic and hide from it, causing the upset and internal conflict. Continuing to avoid these feelings, rather than face and care for them, only makes things worse. Similarly, applying a gratitude practice to this experience of unattended grief is like pouring salt on a wound.

When I already feel like I have no right or space or ability to attend to my grief, it is backward to ask me to focus on what I have instead of helping me acknowledge what I’ve lost.

Necessarily, grief practices have become part of my day-to-day life. When I meditate, I am often aware of, holding, and taking care of my grief alongside my other emotional experiences. Sometimes I use guided meditations specifically for recognizing grief in the body and working with it. Outside of meditation, when I feel an overwhelming feeling of grief rising in my body I allow myself to slow down or stop what I’m doing and just observe and be with the feeling of grief.

Sometimes I am able to discern a specific reason or type of grief, but often I just feel the general heaviness of it. With people I can trust, I am practicing verbally expressing my grief: “I’m feeling deeply sad,” “I’m feeling the loss of X very strongly right now,” “I’m very down and I’m not sure why.” And I have a lot of self-care practices that offer me comfort and make my life a little easier during this period of attending to this backlog of grief.

As I’ve learned and taken the time needed to work with grief, gratitude sprung up alongside it as a natural companion. I only needed to observe and acknowledge this well of gratitude that emerged from within me to feel grateful and appreciative in ways I’d never felt before. When my grief is taken care of, I am better equipped to receive the goodness that has come out of a situation or experience. For example, when I am able to embrace the pain of losing my first cat, I am also able to hold the positive memories we shared together and feel gratitude for them. If I am avoiding that pain, I am unable to hold those memories with gratitude, and if I’m dissociating, I may lose access to those memories to further protect myself from the emotional pain. Continuing to run from the grief can even inhibit my ability to connect with the cats I love today and build healthy relationships with them. In order to receive what feels pleasant, it is necessary to face and cope with what feels unpleasant.

I used to identify this heavy feeling in my chest as depression, and I would think I was permanently depressed and unable to help myself feel better. Now, I identify this heavy feeling as grief, and the tools and skills used to cope with grief have offered me comfort and relief. I identify grief as an ordinary and necessary part of moving through a life full of impermanence, and I acknowledge that I need grief if I want access to the full spectrum of my emotions, including gratitude. For almost a year, I’ve been feeling waves of grief that wash over me multiple times a day. It is steady work to care for this grief, taking things slow and being as consistent as I can.

Sometimes I hope that I will soon emerge out of this extensive season of grieving to enjoy another season of life. And other times I wonder if that’s not how it works, if over time we just get better at embracing the grief, working with it, and carrying it alongside the goodness we receive.

Photo by J Scott Rakozy on Unsplash

Originally published: November 25, 2021
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