When Life Falls Apart Try Gratitude
I’ve lived a number of decades and had my share of pain, yet I don’t know that any pain cuts more deeply than knowing that someone I love is hurting. Unfortunately, as a family caregiver who over time helped provide care for multiple elders, that kind of soul searing pain is something I know well. Yet, I do my level best to find things to be grateful for even during those tough times. Why? Because, in the end, recognizing all that I have to be grateful for helps me cope.
Naturally, I’ve felt sorry for myself when bad things have happened. I’ve felt fearful when a crisis of some kind loomed. In other words, I’m a flawed human being living in a flawed, difficult world. Yet experience has shown me repeatedly that when I step back and try to feel gratitude during times I don’t like or understand, I’m somehow given the courage to keep moving forward. Often, over time, understanding arrives. Other times it doesn’t. I’ve also had to learn to live with unanswered questions.
While listening to a friend talk about her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis I knew that she simply needed to talk so I listened, only commenting to show understanding. However, as she later came to some acceptance of the diagnosis, I began to talk with her about the concept of gratitude.
At first she simply couldn’t understand what I was getting at. She knows that I care about her and others and that I’d never make light of something so serious. She also knows that she can trust me as a resource because I’ve been in her shoes. I’ve cared for loved ones with dementia. She knows that I understand her pain so she decided to trust me to gently guide her even when she was skeptical.
Together, we began two lists, though eventually she may combine them into one. The first list expresses her gratitude for life in general and what she was grateful for before her mother’s diagnosis. The second list is one she will keep during her mother’s Alzheimer’s journey.
For the first list, she began with gratitude for her stable marriage, her healthy children, a reasonable income and a job she likes. When she looked at those four items on her list, she already knew she was blessed. My friend had no problem stretching those general feelings of gratitude into more intimate ones. As she wrote, she was amazed that she’d never thought to try this exercise before. Her spirits rose considerably.
The second list would be harder to write, but in the end, I believe it will be useful to her as she travels the Alzheimer’s journey with her mother. I suggested that she begin with the fact that she and her mother, though they’d had their mother/daughter issues through the years, have become good friends. As we talked, she decided that her second entry on the special gratitude list would be that her mother was diagnosed at an early stage of the disease. This allows the family to make at least tentative care plans as her mom progresses through the different stages of the disease.
Number three on the list was easy for my friend. She was grateful that she lived near enough to her mother to be a real help during the upcoming years. Next came the realization that her mother still recognized everyone in the family. Then she wrote that she was grateful that she and her family could record her mom’s voice and take pictures of her mom before the disease spiraled into the later stages when her mom would not understand the process.
My friend has just begun her second gratitude list, yet she already has several items she can review at will. Naturally, she’ll have many moments of anger, frustration, self-pity, depression, anxiety and fear. When that happens she knows that she needs to allow herself to feel all of those harsh feelings. I’ve encouraged her to journal about those feelings. Journaling often helps us make some sense of our emotions and can, over time, help ease some of the pain.
Eventually, however, I have faith that my friend will learn to accept that the painful journey she is taking with her mother will leave her with increased compassion for others. It will leave her with knowledge that she can share with struggling caregivers. And it will leave her with gratitude that she could be available to help her mother until the end. She will, I believe, add those feelings and more to her gratitude list.
No one said being grateful during life’s hardest trials is easy. However, looking for – and clinging to – that for which we can be grateful, can help us come to a more affirmative and supportive perspective in our lives.