Mind-Body Health

Finding Gratitude Through Grief

Finding Gratitude Through Grief
The journal was sturdy and thick with a long, brown silky ribbon for a bookmark. Its pages boasted inspirational quotes I had never heard of before (“The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings” – Eric Hoffer) and provided space for the eye to breathe. The font was modern, blue, cute. And on its sturdy fluorescent orange cover, it hollered “Okay Fine, I’m Grateful!”

It was my first gratitude journal.

And, having a penchant for sarcasm and irony, I loved its irreverence.

I had always heard of gratitude journaling as a means of fighting off scarcity and boosting everyday happiness. But, for fear of its inherent cheesiness, I had never tried it.

That sentiment changed back in September 2018 when a YouTube rabbit hole taught me that gratitude, like exercise, is one of nature’s freebies for happiness. Numerous scientific studies have shown that people who kept gratitude journals proved to be happier than those who didn’t, and that happiness could occur in record time (we’re talking 2-3 weeks!).

Back then, I needed that happiness. As a Hollywood freelancer and tutor, I was working my face off to not only cover my bills, but my 91-year-old father’s in-home nursing expenses back in Denmark (where he and my mom retired). A widower, he was somewhat functioning, but his cognitive abilities were in decline. Sometimes, he had the wherewithal to answer the phone when I called; most of the time, he didn’t.

Accessing Gratitude in Challenging Times

I purchased my journal and, at night before bed, I filled each day’s page with all of the little things I could remember from that day: a co-worker who had made me laugh, lunch with a friend, light traffic on the way home. Despite my difficult circumstances, I was learning how to cultivate an inner happiness.

And then, my father passed on October 18.

It would’ve been understandable to put the practice on hold while I went back to Denmark to manage the funeral. How on Earth could I maintain an "attitude of gratitude" when my remaining parent had passed away?

I didn’t.

I brought the journal with me and recorded all of the little moments. As I jotted down things like how easy it was to book a flight and how comforted I felt to have a cousin pick me up at the airport, I noticed that a smooth balm of equanimity presided over me. It wasn’t that I was stuffing negative feelings (I mean, I was devastated), but I maintained a level-headed cool. I even started my father’s eulogy with “I’m so grateful…” and waved at his hearse, feeling so much love for my mom and him, who had lived such unique and delightful lives.

Gratitude helped me to keep it together.

How Gratitude Changes the Brain’s Neural Pathways

I couldn’t help but wonder, did gratitude cause a positive chemical change?

“Quite possibly,” Elizabeth Tuckerman Armstrong, a New York-based psychotherapist, states, “Gratitude has been shown to change our brain’s neural pathways (neuroplasticity), lower cortisol (stress hormones), and trigger our parasympathetic nervous system. When practiced daily, the effects of gratitude have been shown to be almost the same as some medications (anti-depressants). So yes…There’s a definite possibility that there was a chemical shift.”

That such a simple habit could carry me through such a difficult time – and possibly change my brain chemistry – blows my mind. Since then, I have worked through my grief through group counseling (in which we often did exercises in gratitude), and I’ve continued my daily journaling practice. Even during COVID, I’ve more or less remained even-keel because gratitude has given me the perspective that we can always find light within the dark.

“We were wired to survive, not be happy,” Armstrong notes, “so our mind is primed to look for what’s going to go wrong in order to try to keep us safe…we then feed the negativity with more negative thoughts, causing our body to get activated [and continue the cycle]…Gratitude seems to help break that loop of negative thinking and stress response in the body and promote a sense of calm, centeredness, and well-being.”

I’m so thankful for that.

Take care of your mental well-being and find support through life’s peaks and valleys with Your Mental Well-being Toolkit, a four-part series with Gabriella Wright, available now in the Chopra App.