The art of practicing gratitude has been around for centuries. It’s the foundation for many old religions and was observed by stoic philosophers as far back as 2,400 years ago in Greece. But even though this is an ancient tradition, as a society we’ve only recently begun to study and understand the positive effects practicing gratitude has on our emotional well-being.
What does it mean to “practice” gratitude?
It means we have to make a conscious effort every day to find something or someone to be thankful for (not only on Thanksgiving). It’s a way of being present and appreciating what we have today.
Let’s face it: being optimistic doesn’t come naturally during difficult times in our lives. Sometimes we have to work hard at finding the silver lining.
There were many moments when I’ve struggled with practicing gratitude, even before my husband Larry died.
As a parent to a child with special needs I’ve faced moments in my life where I’ve been overwhelmed with therapy appointments, educational meetings and assessments, not to mention the constant research I took upon myself to do at all times of the day and night searching for more ways to help my son.
In addition to the physical demands of running around, the roller coaster of emotions a parent of a child with special needs faces is enough to make one want to yell: “STOP, I need to get off this ride!” A good report from therapists or teachers would send my excitement soaring high into the sky; a negative report would leave me with my head on my desk and crying, wondering what more could I do, what therapy I could’ve missed…
Then Larry died and I really had a hard time finding anything– other than my children- to be grateful for.
When the holidays approached I put on a good face, but inside the pain and guilt I felt was very real. Yes, I felt guilty. I mean, how could I appreciate the food I was about to eat when Larry wouldn’t be here to eat it with me?
One thing I knew for sure: after getting through the holidays and facing depression from grief I just had to kick up my wellness plan. That meant that along with all the other tools I’ve mentioned in past posts I started to practice gratitude on a daily basis.
Yes, but, does it really make a difference?
It most certainly does. According to the Greater Good Science Center in Berkley at the University of California, those who practice gratitude on a regular basis show benefits in one or more of the following:
• Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure
• Higher levels of positive emotions
• More joy, optimism, and happiness
• Acting with more generosity and compassion
• Feeling less lonely and isolated
So each morning as I took my walk I had a running list in my mind of all the things I was grateful for. Mostly it was a list of what I call the “typical” things: my children, my home, my extended family and friends.
Then one day after we celebrated Larry’s birthday in July (which we do every year), I decided to get more specific and write down everything about Larry having been in my life that I was grateful for.
I grabbed my journal and instead of focusing on what I was missing from him each day, I decided to thank him for what he brought into my life.
This following is an excerpt taken from my journal on July 23, 2011.
Thank you for loving me.
Thank you for always encouraging me.
Thank you for marrying me.
Thank you for three wonderful boys.
Thank you for giving me the ability to provide for the boys.
Thank you for your generosity.
Thank you for teaching me what it means to be in a good relationship.
Thank you for showing me respect.
Thank you for allowing me to be me.
Thank you for helping to create this family.
Focusing on the qualities Larry had and what he brought to me and our relationship didn’t mean I stopped missing him. Quite the contrary, I missed him every day- I still do. But writing down his qualities helped me appreciate that he was in my life and even though his death brought an immense amount of pain into my life, the positive aspects far outweighed the pain. I’ll always be grateful for having the privilege of knowing him, loving him and creating a family with him.
After going through this process for Larry I was left with a sense of peace that I didn’t have before. It also led me to do the same for my son with special needs who has certainly taught me as much, if not more, than I’ve taught him.
To my son:
Thank you for loving me unconditionally.
Thank you for showing me how to forgive, even at the hardest times.
Thank you for showing me how to persevere each day.
Thank you for teaching your brothers to have compassion for those who struggle.
Thank you for your wicked sense of humor!
Thank you for choosing me to be your mom!
This doesn’t erase the hard times we’ve faced, or still may face, but each day I spend with him I know we were meant to be together.
So, like most of you, I’ll share what I’m thankful for tomorrow with my children and parents as we sit down for our Thanksgiving dinner, but I have one more thing to be grateful for this year:
I’m grateful to you for trusting in me, believing in me and choosing to join this community and travel down this path of healing together.
Thank You and have a Blessed Thanksgiving!
P.S. Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving and many of you will be spending your day shopping, cooking or traveling, I won’t be sending a follow up post this afternoon. Happy Thanksgiving!