Practicing gratitude, despite loss, can help us cope with grief during the holidays
As we settle into the holiday season and the end of 2023, some of us might be thinking about who will be seated at our table during our traditional holiday meals.
Often, there will be an empty chair once occupied by a loved one or close friend. Many of us have experienced a loss of some kind this year, but not everyone will be stricken with grief or a sense of melancholy. If you keep reading, you’ll find that ’tis the season to be grateful.
I experienced loss when my mom died in August, and I continue to miss my mom today because, after all, she is irreplaceable. However, I’ve found solace via gratitude.
Every holiday season comes with high expectations for traditional festivities. Like most families, we would get excited about mom cooking our Thanksgiving dinner, and just a few days later, we’d begin decorating the house and put up the Christmas tree. For the kids, it’s about opening the gifts. But as I get older, being with my family is what brings me the most joy.
However, for those of us who’ve suffered loss, this time of year can be tainted with sadness or anxiety. Unfortunately, these kinds of feelings can be overwhelming, but I think there’s one aspect of this time of year that can actually lift our spirits; regardless of your faith or culture, each and every holiday is steeped in gratitude.
Gratitude is an appreciation for what we receive, be it tangible or intangible. And I think being grateful also helps us connect to something larger than ourselves, whether it’s to other people or some kind of higher power. For me, the feeling of gratitude is associated with happiness. Gratitude helps me feel more positive. I relish good experiences, and I think it helps me deal with adversity.
In preparation for this column, I found an article published in 2021 by Harvard Medical School, which says people feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. We can apply it to the past (being thankful for elements of childhood), the present (not taking good fortune for granted) and the future (maintaining an optimistic attitude). Regardless of the inherent level of your gratitude, it’s a quality you can cultivate further.
Believe it or not, there’s been a lot of research on the benefits we receive from expressing gratitude.
In a 2003 study, psychologists from the University of California-Davis and the University of Miami asked participants to write a few sentences each week about particular topics. One group wrote about things that had occurred for which they were grateful. The second group wrote about things they found irritating or unpleasant, and the third group wrote about things that had affected them, but with no emphasis on them being positive or negative. Not surprisingly, the study found those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives than those who focused on the bad stuff.
Another study conducted by a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in 2005 tested the impact of expressing gratitude toward others. Participants were told to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness. The study’s results indicated the participants who wrote those letters had an immediate increase in happiness. With that said, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that 2019 data from the Greeting Card Association shows Americans spend between $7 billion and $8 billion a year in greeting cards.
Researchers admit studies such as these cannot prove cause and effect, yet most of the studies do support an association between a person’s gratitude and his or her well-being.
Simply put, gratitude helps us focus on what we have instead of what we lack. Make no mistake, I’ll never have gratitude for that empty chair at the table, but I will always have gratitude for the irreplaceable person who once occupied it. After all, ’tis the season to be grateful.