Episode 31: How gratitude can stall healing
You are listening to the Life Reconstructed podcast with me, Teresa Amaral Beshwate, grief expert, best-selling author and widow. I’m so glad you’re here because in this and every episode, I shine a light on the widowed way forward.
Hello and welcome to episode 31. In this episode, we look closely at gratitude, how it can sometimes be used as a weapon, and what to do instead.
If you’re listening to this episode at the time it’s released, it’s November. Which, at least in the US, is a time of year we think about gratitude and count our blessings. But as a coach for widowed people, I often talk with people who are using gratitude against themselves.
It can sound like, “I really should be grateful and not sad, after all, I was so blessed.”
It’s as if we can only feel one feeling at a time. And that it should somehow be a positive one.
The truth is that having blessings in your life does not in any way eliminate or diminish your grief. Blessings don’t discount your pain. They don’t revoke your right to feel profoundly sad.
The truth is that experiencing two seemingly opposite feelings, simultaneously, is possible. It’s the duality of life after loss. It’s to allow two things to be equally true, at once. Gratitude and grief, for example, can coexist.
For example, being happy for the bride, while simultaneously and equally sad that her dad isn’t walking her down the aisle.
Or finding joy in the grandkids, while simultaneously and equally sad that their grandfather isn’t here physically to enjoy them, too.
Allowing both feelings feels better than attempting to deny the difficult feeling.
And it starts with making peace with difficult emotions.
Most people are never taught that it’s okay to feel difficult or uncomfortable emotions. In fact, as children we are often talked out of them: “Don’t worry.” “Don’t feel sad.” “Don’t be nervous.”
Many people grow up thinking that it’s not normal or acceptable to feel negatively, that life is somehow supposed to be a bowl of cherries at all times.
So, if difficult emotions are perceived as abnormal, then we certainly don’t learn how to deal with them.
Then the unthinkable happens. The seismic event of a lifetime shakes us to the core and levels everything that was once normal, predictable, and safe in our lives. Any negative emotion we’ve ever felt pales in comparison. Profound loss deals up an assortment of emotions that are perhaps best described as horrific.
We may try to talk ourselves out of difficult emotions. This is where gratitude comes into play. We somehow think that if we have many other blessings, we’re not allowed to feel short-changed.
We don’t want to wallow in our grief, so we shame ourselves into gratitude with thoughts like: “At least we had three decades together.”
We attempt to count blessings instead of feeling feelings. We fake it, thinking that eventually we will “make it.”
Well-intended platitudes offer up gratitude as an antidote to grief: they sound like: “At least you had so many years together.”
We don’t feel entitled to our feelings of loss, so we kick ourselves with gratitude.
Gratitude becomes a weapon that we use against ourselves.
While gratitude is generally a positive emotion, when used as a weapon, it stalls healing. When we force thoughts of gratitude, we sweep the pain of loss under the rug. By forcing ourselves to count blessings, we resist difficult emotions. And what we resist, persists.
The most efficient way through grief is straight through. Facing your grief head-on means feeling the difficult emotions that come with the territory. When you process each feeling as it comes, you allow it to be there without trying to solve for it. You name it, notice where in the body you feel it, breathe it in, and observe how it changes over time. Be courageous enough to be fully present with the feeling until it loosens its grip. Processing emotion is a simple, yet powerful skill. Listen to episode 4 for more.
The truth is that we can count millions of blessings and still feel robbed of what matters most. It’s okay to have enjoyed three decades together but still mourn for the three more you had planned. It’s also okay to have had the most picture-perfect marriage and grieve hard for what was supposed to be.
It’s possible to be grateful and to feel pain, all at once. One feeling does not negate the other.
It’s possible to experience a range of emotions, all at once, without attempting to sweep one under the rug. It’s the more authentic human experience.
Using gratitude against yourself will not expedite your healing. But allowing feelings to coexist, and processing your feelings, will.
I invite you to grab pen and paper, note all the reasons why you feel grateful. Also list all of the feelings you experience because of your loss. Take a few minutes and feel both the gratitude and the sadness, acknowledging that each emotion has a place in your life.
The simultaneous feeling of gratitude and sadness is just one example of the duality of life after loss, which is a place where seemingly contradictory feelings coexist and feel equally true.
It can feel disorienting to experience such a range of emotions all at once, yet this is the authentic human experience of life after loss.
Allowing for the duality of life after loss means allowing yourself to feel it all, without self-judgement and without hiding.
Also know that it’s perfectly okay if you don’t feel any gratitude at all. No feeling is required. If right now you just feel robbed, that’s okay, too. I would still encourage you to allow for the experience of duality in your life.
And give yourself credit for doing the best you can living a life you didn’t sign up for. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. Loving yourself is the best way forward.
If this episode was helpful, please share it with a widowed friend. And remember that I believe in you, and I’m here for you. Take care.
If you’ve found this podcast helpful, I invite you to join Life Reconstructed, my coaching program exclusively for widowed people. It will help you step forward toward a life you will love again. Simply go to thesuddenwidowcoach.com and click work with me.