Practicing Gratitude in the Midst of Grief

The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them. ~Paulo Coelho

*Jane started coaching with me in 2010 or so.  She came into our coaching relationship as a former heart disease patient, just looking to keep up the healthy habits that she’d put into practice after a cardiac surgery ten years prior.  With a clean bill of health and the okay from her cardiologist to simply visit him annually for a regular check-up, her goals stemmed from the desire to support her husband in eating healthier as he struggled with some of his own health issues.  She embraced gardening, got really creative with whipping up interesting dishes from quinoa and millet, and loved to share her new finds with me in the realm of healthy eating.  She struggled with her goal to get to the gym even though she always felt better after going, and eventually she switched her goal to doing yoga at home and at the office when she had some down time.  Over the years she had ups and downs with meeting her goals, but she always showed up to calls, her commitment to support her husband never wavered, and she always wanted to continue to push herself to be able to retire into good health as her last day of work approached.

And then one day I called for our scheduled appointment.  It had been about four months since we’d last connected due to a number of variables, Jane had passed her retirement date, and I figured we’d simply pick up where we left off and continue working on getting to the gym or keeping the yoga going while she maintained her healthy eating habits.  I figured things would be even easier for her since she was no longer needing to go to the office every day.  She answered the phone and I knew something was different.  Her voice was flat and when I asked if it was still a good time to talk, she said yes and broke into tears.

After a few moments she was able to explain what was going on, and I learned that her beloved husband, the man she raved about on every single call, to whom she was extremely devoted, had died.  Her expectations for retirement had been turned upside down, and she felt like the rug had been pulled out from beneath her.  And indeed it had – her life as she had known it for the last 40 years would never be the same.

We got through that call, and she left with some goals to explore the grief counseling available to her through the funeral home and make sure to eat at least one healthy meal every day.  (Her healthy eating habits had slipped significantly now that she wasn’t caring for her husband’s needs.) I felt a little unsure about how to proceed, as her grief and sadness was so very raw still, and it clouded everything she saw, and understandably so.  I hoped she would follow through on the grief counseling, and we scheduled the next session.

She continued to show up to our appointments as usual, and she started grief counseling. She also joined a support group, which eventually turned out to be a very good thing, despite the challenges she had with opening up for the first several months.  She gradually started making healthier meals, though she continued to struggle with gathering up the motivation to cook for one.  She made goals around inviting people over more and getting out into the community, and on every call we talked about her husband and how much she missed him.  She continued to stave off tears at least once every time we spoke. At one point in the midst of all of this, I brought up the concept of the gratitude journal – not really knowing how it would go over, but feeling like it might be good timing now that she’d had several months of grief support.  She agreed to give it a shot and write down three things each day that she was grateful for, no matter how tiny, at the end of her day.

Almost ten months later, she’s still keeping her gratitude journal, and when I spoke with her last week there was a noticeable shift in her energy.  We talked about her husband as usual, but there was an incredible sense of joy mixed in with the grief that will probably never fully fade.  She spoke of how grateful she is to have had him in her life and how much she is still learning from him as she goes through his office and books and personal items that she wasn’t able to touch before.  She is going to the opera weekly, she is taking yoga and Pilates classes at the gym, and her next goal is the visit the botanical gardens that surround the cemetery at least once a month to walk mindfully in nature.  She’s studying things like neurobiology and attending lectures at the local university, and she is excited about getting back into her garden to start growing herbs again for her cooking experiments.

Jane was able to come to a place of healing amidst her grief and pain by tapping into her support network, letting other help her, feeling her grief fully, and digging down into the joy that she still has in her life.  By talking about her pain and fear of living without her husband, and by being intentional about noticing the little bits of good that still punctuate her days, she is living in her retirement once again embracing good health.   And I am grateful for the opportunity to walk alongside her and witness some of her journey – I learned a lot from Jane and am continually inspired by her courage and zest for life in the midst of a huge and painful transition.  Hearing how much practicing gratitude impacted her every day is another reinforcement that Mr. Coelho was right: “The simple things are the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.”

*name changed for privacy

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