I had always thought of gratitude and grief as polar opposites. To me, gratitude is associated with appreciation, relief, and provision. It fills your heart with warmth when you are pleased with something. It often follows something you had hoped for. Grief, on the other hand, is associated with deep sorrow. It can feel so painful, so isolating, and so cold. It often follows your worst fear. They couldn’t be more different from one another, thus it made perfect sense to me that they could never coexist. Surely grief was an enemy of gratitude, and gratitude was the remedy for grief.
Then I lost Ethan.
Holding my firstborn son in my arms as he took his first and final breaths, my assumptions on grief and gratitude were challenged in ways I found difficult to articulate. All at once, I was overcome with both gratitude and grief–incredible gratitude for the privilege of being this strong little boy’s mama and unthinkable grief over losing him. It was then I discovered that grief and gratitude do not cancel one another out. Grief and gratitude can coexist. Contrary to what I once assumed, grief is not the enemy of gratitude. Thankfulness can grow and thrive in the midst of pain.
To clarify, this does not mean that I was thankful for loss. Gratitude in grief does not mean that we are grateful for losses or for heartbreak. We have the freedom to call those things what they are–horrible, painful, confusing. Grief demands to be felt and my gratitude did not take away my permission to grieve. Finding gratitude in the midst of grief did not mean slapping a superficial smile over tears and searching for silver linings, but rather it meant acknowledging the gifts my broken heart had been given as I grieved.
As Thanksgiving approached that first year, I was challenged to give myself permission to embrace both grief and gratitude. I chose to be grateful–grateful to have known my son for the 28 weeks he grew inside of me and the 93 minutes after. Grateful for the ways his life has shaped and challenged me. Grateful to have caught a glimpse of the purest form of unconditional love–a love that is stronger than death. I challenged myself to give thanks for the gifts I have been given, while allowing myself space to grieve.
This November, let’s all give ourselves permission to feel both grief and gratitude. Let’s be kind to ourselves and to one another, allowing ourselves to miss our babies and share a good cry, while recognizing how special they are and how fortunate we are to have known them for whatever time we had. There is enough room for both joy and sorrow, grief and gratitude.