In your grief, have you been told by family and friends to be grateful? I imagine the answer is a resounding yes. If so, I'll be very clear: we need to stop this madness.
In the work I do with people facing trauma, I’m told over and over again how those around them just want them to be grateful. They might even make an attempt at utilizing the advice, but it almost always incites anger, not comfort.
Promoting gratitude is one of the most misleading—and harmful—offerings you can make to someone in the throes of grief. Yet it remains as popular as ever; it’s become a mindless, pervasive drug.
It's well-meaning bullshit, but it's still bullshit. Why? Because it’s based on two fundamentally flawed assumptions: first, it assumes that gratitude has the ability to fix grief. Second, it assumes that grieving people are less prone to be grateful than those who aren't grieving. Both of these assumptions are ludicrous.
Gratitude and grief serve fundamentally different purposes. Using gratitude to wash away grief is like telling someone who’s received a cancer diagnosis to take an Advil. Their purposes are completely incongruous.
Ungratefulness generally arises in response to the trivialities of life, not life-changing events. The person who complains about every ridiculous detail of their job, or seems to be incapable of appreciating anything, is ungrateful.
The person who’s lost the love of their life? First, they are often profoundly grateful: for their family, the friends who care for them, the love they receive. They may not actively show it, but it’s often there.
Yet even this leads to a further assumption: that grieving people should be grateful. They shouldn’t. The immediate aftermath of tragedy is not the time to find things to be grateful for. It is a time to find solace not in happy things, but in grieving itself.
This also addresses one of the most foolish assumptions many make about the purpose of gratitude: that it exists to make you feel good, which is narcissistic and ends up defeating the purpose of being grateful in the first place.
Being grateful might lead to you feeling good, but that’s a byproduct of doing the work involved in creating the conditions by which you might find a peaceful heart. Cultivating a grateful worldview probes the depths of your being. It widens perspective, increases your capacity to listen, encourages self-reflection, and leads to a more honest, gentle disposition. All of these things may very well result in your feeling better, but how you feel isn’t the goal.
A lack of gratitude is often the outworking of a selfish mindset, not the result of tragic circumstances. This is an important but often neglected distinction.
So the next time you’re faced with someone who’s life has been torn apart by loss, please do not tell them to be grateful. It’s useless and dismissive.
Being with a grieving person is profoundly uncomfortable. When someone attempts to come to the aid of a person in pain, they often try to mask that lack of comfort with ridiculous bromides. Gratitude is the most fashionable of these. Unfortunately it almost never makes it better. If anything, it makes it worse. The advice attempts to “get somewhere”, instead of honoring the pain that exists in the here and now.
Instead of offering some sort of gratitude-infused platitude, stand with your loved one in silence. Be uncomfortable with her, no matter how awful it makes you feel. Listen to her, hold her, stand with her. Doing any of this will foster a thousand times more peace than any sort of gratitude exercise ever could.
Gratitude doesn’t erase grief. Nor should it. It is not an antidote to loss, nor could it ever be.
You don’t honor grief with gratitude. You honor grief by grieving.
I'm Tim, and The Adversity Within is a blog dedicated to examining the topic of resilience in the face of adversity, while inspiring readers to stand headstrong in their grief and fight for their own evolution. Living with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, I explore topics like post-traumatic growth, survival, and self-reliance. No one should face adversity alone. Subscribe to my mailing list below for free weekly writings delivered to your inbox, and follow me along on Facebook and Twitter.