Last February, I went out of town to visit my mother-in-law, Betty, who was in the final stages of cancer. During this trip, I hung out with my 15-year-old niece, Lauren, who lives close to her grandmother and was spending a lot of time with her during these final days. As a therapist and a concerned family member, I wanted to know more about how Lauren and other family members were coping with this impending loss. Lauren told me that her mother was doing an amazing job of caring for Grandma, but that meant that her mother was spending every non-working moment tending to Betty. So Lauren didn’t get to see her mother unless she came to Grandma’s house. I asked Lauren how she felt about her mother being so preoccupied with Betty’s care. She said that it was hard for her, but that her Grandma was the one person who had created the family and kept it together, and so she deserved the best care she could get. Although Lauren wasn’t getting what she wanted, she was willing to sacrifice so that her grandmother could be as comfortable as possible.
I was really struck by what Lauren said. My niece had every right to be angry with her mother for not being there for her, or to be angry with Grandma for dying. However, she was thankful for all that her grandmother had done for her and others over the years. When we are going through a difficult time, appreciating all that we have helps us to avoid becoming solely focused on the negative, which can make a challenging time feel even harder. Gratitude benefits us during the good times, as well, as research shows that people who are more grateful than others experience less depression and stress and tend to be more satisfied with their lives and their social relationships.
Thanksgiving is a great time to practice gratitude. If you have trouble incorporating gratitude into your everyday life, try this: Before you go to bed each night, make a list of five things that you are thankful for. If you’ve had a bad day, this exercise might not seem easy, but you can do it. If nothing comes to mind, think of everyday things that you appreciate that made your day easier or more pleasant. For example: toothpaste, indoor plumbing, your job, a supportive person in your life, your smart phone, ice cream, and weekends. Going to bed with a mindset of gratitude is a great way to end the day and has the added benefit of helping you to start the next day feeling hopeful for all that the new day has to offer.
What are you grateful for today? Here’s my five for today: my beautiful niece, the time I spent with my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law’s hard work and dedication, my health, and Reese’s pieces. And I can’t resist adding a sixth: all of my clients, who are working hard to find gratitude, joy and serenity in their lives.
In loving memory of Betty