Practicing Gratitude in Many Ways

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I began seeing a therapist, Alexia, five days after Nelle was stillborn.  I remember making the phone call to a counseling services group that had been recommended to me and when asked for the reason for wanting the appointment I had to say the words out loud “Because… because my baby died.”  The person on the other end of the phone gave the immediate, automatic “Oh, I’m so sorry….” Ger and I went to the first appointment together but then I began to see Alexia alone.

At my second appointment, she gave me a journal and told me that she wanted me to write down three things I was grateful for every day.  Because I am a rule-follower, I complied.  With each new day, not only did I write down the three things I was grateful for along with the date, but I also wrote down “Day 13” – as in 13 days since Nelle was born.

Sometimes the items were mundane.  Sometimes I was grateful that someone had reached out to me or sent me a small gift.  One of my friends, acknowledging that she didn’t know what to say, sent me photos of beautiful birds every day for a period of time.  Another dropped off cookies.  I was grateful for these things.

Then there was Day 21.  I wrote down “I am not grateful for anything today.  I had my postpartum appointment and we have no answers.”  So there’s that.

I continued with this practice until I became pregnant with Iris.  Then my journal scribbling turned from gratitude to worry.  Constantly scared.  I wrote at length about how much I feared losing a baby again.  The fear was so consuming that I wrote less and less.  Then there was the entry on February 11th where I expressed that I felt that something was wrong, even though I rationally tried to tell myself that there was no reason to think that way.  On February 12th, I found out that she had died and on February 13th she was born.  Somehow, my instincts had known, and were reflected in my writing.

Though I stopped writing what I was grateful for each day, we began to practice being thankful “out loud” in our home.  It began sometime in the summer after losing Iris, when I began to explore going to church again.  We have never been a family that prays before dinner, but we began a ritual of going around the table and saying what we were thankful for at the table.  Even if someone had an awful day, our minimum requirement was to say “I’m thankful that I’m alive.”  In a way, it became the signal to the rest of the family that the person had a bad day.  I remember the months of being pregnant with Autumn and needing to find the tiniest thing to be thankful for amid my daily struggle with anxiety.

When we began to deal with Ger’s anxiety a few months ago, we began a new ritual between the two of us.  Every evening, after the kids have been tucked in for the night, we say to each other three things that we are grateful for that day.  I brought this up with him because there is a lot of science behind practicing gratitude – and he likes things backed by science – and there were days when I could tell he was on edge either from home, or talking to his therapist, or something else.  It was a way to decompress in the evening and bring down the volume before bed.  A few times, I felt like he was just reciting things that he felt he should be grateful for, but that he didn’t necessarily enjoy or appreciate (like “I’m grateful that we went to the museum” – even though it was loud, crowded, and overstimulating.  Are you really grateful?  Or just saying that?)  So then I questioned, in a loving way: Why are you grateful for that?  What did you like about that?  It became more than just a statement, but really digging into why we are grateful for what is in our lives.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend who was having a miscarriage, in a recurring pattern of heartbreak for her.  I was trying to remember what I did in the early days after losing Nelle.  Went for walks.  Took a lot of baths.  And my therapist made me write down what I was grateful for each day.  Finding those small things, even on the hardest of days, forced me to find something positive in my day.

We have a wooden sign in our kitchen (courtesy of Etsy) that says “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”  I bought it when I was on a minimalist kick years ago as a reminder to myself not to fill the house with “stuff” or wish for more.  After losing Nelle and Iris, I was a bit resentful of the sentiment that I should be grateful for the children I have, as if they were a replacement for the ones I lost.  Still I kept the sign.  And the other day, while contemplating the gratitude I have practiced over the years since losing them, I tried to look at the saying through its original lens.  Being grateful for “having” doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive of mourning what I have lost.