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Where Does Gratitude Belong in Grief?

It’s pretty easy to feel grateful when good things happen. Win the lottery or fall in love? Easy. But what if you lose your spouse, or child, or even your job, how do we find gratitude then?

Scientifically, we know gratitude is strongly linked to well being. People just feel better when gratitude is part of the mix. It’s the feel-good fuel that urges us on to higher and higher ground when life is going well. But does it have even more benefit when used when healing from grief, or anytime life knocks you on your bum and you are having trouble getting back up?

Like the metaphor of an alchemist, gratitude is mysterious process where we can literally change our relationship to life itself, turning baser emotions of anger, sadness, and bitterness, into something more powerful and positively creative. If all we can see is loss, then our spirits diminish and our lives shrink.

So, we listen to the deeper pulse of our own life force, which always urges us on, and then we take baby steps toward higher vibrational thoughts and feelings. This is where the “tires hit the pavement,” and the real work is done. There are no great acts, just small ones done with great love.

We become grateful for what we can. Plates in our cupboard? Wonderful, proof we’re not starving. A roof over our head? Great, we’re not homeless. Warm water from the faucet? Amazing! The list goes on and on, and it’s an important list.

After the stunning loss of my life partner to ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease (think: Ice Bucket Challenge) in 2010, much of the magical, naturally occurring energy of gratitude simply evaporated from my heart. Gratitude became more cerebral, less experiential. My mantra was “fake it ’til you make it” as self-pity became my new bathwater.

It’s hard to admit this, but there is something weirdly comforting about self-pity. Probably because on the surface, self-pity often looks justifiable. “Life is difficult,” I have been wronged” and “Why me” become our inner dialogue. Without gratitude, self pity seeps in and oozes like a thick and suffocating coating of tar that colors and clouds everything. Ultimately, it feels terrible, and it’s outcome, even worse. I know.

But life is nothing if not constantly renewable. At some point, we might awaken to the paradox that the seeds of that which we’ve been suffering from are exactly what offer us salvation. When we are ready, we might sit with our despair, as the Buddhists remind us, and really explore it. Really get inside it and let it ruminate in our bones and in our blood. This takes courage, and it is messy. But courage isn’t about being fearless—it’s about feeling your fear and moving through it.

As I did this. I realized that part of my suffering during my partner’s illness was heightened by my resistance to what was happening at the time, because I am learning now that much of my recent or current suffering has been due to resistance to my new life, this one, the one that I didn’t plan for.

But here’s something I also discovered: after years of grief recovery, there are moments where I now feel flashes of gratitude for these sad years. When I look at it all with objective eyes, I realize my life didn’t get really, truly “interesting” until I lost so much. And by interesting, I mean it turned up the stakes to levels never before seen in my life. I can see how this difficult time of mourning required me to do deeper work than I would have done otherwise. And I’m not done yet. It’s not all rosy, as heading down this dark tunnel, I know for some, could be a really sad ending. I am no exception to this.

Yet, this is the magic of life when we realize that we have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next. Regardless of what happens, we always have input on how it will ultimately effect us. And for this deeper realization, I am grateful.

When we accept gratitude as the major, dominant force in our lives, we radically neutralize the heavier forces of the ego that would have us live as victims of life and chance. So, after all the drama of the past few years, gratitude is returning as the major force in my life. In fact, I wonder if it never really left.


Interested in exploring gratitude in your own life? Use this prompt and write free form for 15 —and see what you come up with! It’s easy, and don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Just write from your heart and see what comes out. “When I accept gratitude as the major, dominant force in my life, I…”

Will Donnelly

Will Donnelly is a nationally recognized, certified yoga teacher and writer, and is the author of “Practical Yoga’s Wisdom for Everyday People: Essays & Inspiration for Life" (2017), a compilation of his most popular online essays now available at Will has been a pioneer in the field of yoga, developing Practical Yoga, and co-creating a yoga–reality series for fitTV (Discovery Communications, 2004). As a writer and teacher, Will encourages all students to trust their impulses and find their true voice. Will currently lives in Hawaii, where he leads weekly yoga and writing classes at Kalani retreat center. He also leads several popular Practical Yoga adventure and healing retreats throughout the year. Information on retreats, his book, DVDs and other inspiration to be found at

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