Walk into any store that sells home décor and you’ll be overtaken by everything from wall art to picture frames to hand towels – all demanding you to be, feel or otherwise display your gratitude. If the retail assault isn’t enough, try checking your Facebook or Instagram feed without being invited to a 30 Days of Gratitude challenge, or commanded by an onslaught of mindless drivel in the form of “Choose Happy” and #blessed memes. I’ve always wondered why a market for these items exists. Since becoming a grief support specialist, I’ve wondered even more.
Last week, I wrote about false positivity – the idea that grief, anger, sadness or any emotion other than manic positivity is considered politically incorrect or impolite – those situations when you don’t allow yourself the time to heal, to be upset, or to be alone simply because sadness and solitude have earned a bad reputation. The article resonated with a number of readers and leant itself to a larger conversation about the idea that when painful things happen, we should be grateful for them, that they have somehow been delivered to us to teach us a lesson or to improve us in some way. Author Megan Devine writes:
“Things like “everything happens for a reason” and “you’ll become a stronger / kinder / more compassionate person because of this” brings out rage in grieving people. Nothing makes a person angrier than when they know they’re being insulted but can’t figure out how.
It’s not just erasing your current pain that makes words of comfort land so badly. There’s a hidden subtext in those statements about becoming a better, kinder, and more compassionate because of your loss, that often-used phrase about knowing what’s “truly important in life” now that you’ve learned how quickly life can change.
The unspoken second half of the sentence in this case says you needed this somehow. It says that you weren’t aware of what was important in life before this happened. It says that you weren’t kind, compassionate, or aware enough in your life before this happened. That you needed this experience in order to develop or grow, that you needed this lesson in order to step into your “true path” in life.
As though loss and hardship were the only ways to grow as a human being. As though pain were the only doorway to a better, deeper life, the only way to be truly compassionate, grateful and kind.”
Though an unpopular statement, I’d like to acknowledge the giant elephant (turkey?) in the room: Thanksgiving can feel like a total sham for people who are grieving. Many of the traditions and messaging associated with the day, like warmth, gratitude and togetherness, feel in direct conflict with a grieving person’s reality. If you are grieving, you probably know what I mean by this. It’s like being asked to live a complete lie so as to not make those around you uncomfortable. Even Dr. Seuss weighed in with “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” In other words, be grateful for how you’re feeling right now – even though it’s awful. Be grateful. What an impossible thing to expect of a person who is in pain.
After a death, it’s common for grieving people to feel absolutely nothing toward the experiences and activities that used to bring them joy. This is not a deliberate choice anyone makes – grief simply changes the way life looks and feels. Your invitation to celebrate Thanksgiving, or, life in general, isn’t revoked simply because you don’t exude the expected holiday cheer. Feel free to cry because it’s over AND smile because it happened.
When it comes to grief and gratitude, you don’t have to choose.