On Grief and Gratitude
I was 23 and living in New York.
And life was a combination of marketing classes, PR internships, and the pure enjoyment of the treasure that is NYC. I’d managed to find a one-year master’s program that would allow me to start in Rome and finish in New York. Dream. Come. True.
After all, I’d followed my father’s advice: “Travel, study, and then travel some more – you’ll have the rest of your life to work.” Over a decade later, I wish I could thank him for this spot-on, painfully true piece of wisdom. I arrived from Rome a few months earlier and life in New York was everything I never knew I wanted, needed, and longed for. This was my city.
And it was also in my city where I got the call – the one you’re never prepared to get; the one with news you’ve only catastrophized about.
On The Life-Shattering
It was 5:00pm on a warm summer Sunday when my aunt Ana called. She’s one of my mother’s four sisters who lives in South Carolina and who had called me earlier mentioning she might have to come to NY for a last-minute conference — there was no last-minute conference. The words: "Oh sweetheart... I wish I was there to tell you this in person,” came out of her mouth in a broken voice. I’m sure it was hard to say, and I can assure you it was harder to hear.
"Your dad..." she said.
What followed made my legs feel like Jell-O, and I fell to my knees.
It was like somehow the roadrunner mistook me for the coyote, and dropped a 500-pound ACME anvil from a cliff, crushing the life out of me. I had spoken with my father the night before. He told me he’d been to our old house (which he was looking to fix and sell) with a handyman that was highly recommended by a family friend. He said they’d go back in the morning, so I asked him to be careful and to call me when they were done.
To this day, I don’t let anyone into my house to fix anything if I’m alone. No matter how “well recommended” they are. My aunt told me that the handyman, along with an uninvited helper, robbed and killed my father. I’ll spare you the details. He died in his house. The house I grew up in; The house he’d purchased over 20 years earlier, when he was a newlywed, a first-time dad, and an entry-level accountant. This all happened before 9:00am on that Sunday morning while the neighbors were having breakfast.
I can only describe learning about this as pure, raw shock. The truth is, that the fact that my father was not alive anymore did not register in my mind – realizing that I would not see him again, or hear his voice, or have him in my life – was surreal, to say the least. And I was not there. I wasn’t as far as Rome, but a five-hour flight felt far enough I promise you that.
When my aunt mentioned she had already booked my flight for the next day, I felt the first sliver of serenity.
My roommate heard me drop to the floor, so she stepped out of her bedroom and found me in the living room sobbing over the phone. She kept her distance. She allowed me to be and to feel without overwhelming me with questions and nonsenses like: “Don’t cry.”, “It’ll be okay.”, "This too shall pass.” — which I deeply appreciated.
Looking back, I was at the perfect place, with the perfect person going through the most imperfect situation. I’m unsure of my capacity to have handled so many emotions, coming in from so many places and so many people, if I’d been home. My journey with grief and gratitude started right there. With her.
On Friends and Family
I can say, without a doubt, that my father’s death established the silent recognition of the friends that I call friends and the friends that I call family. Let me illustrate. My father died on a Sunday and I arrived at Panama on a Monday. By Tuesday, one of my closest friends (who lived abroad) was already at my house. And within a few days, my best friend, who doubles as another sister, arrived too. I’m unable to put into words the level of sanity, support, and safety they gave me. They were home to me. They were family.
I had extraordinary emotional support coming in from my closest friends, most of them from high school. They came to my house, we reminisced on my father’s anecdotes, his randomness, his unparalleled devotion to his daughters, and his dad jokes. He was the king of dad jokes. I was grateful for them. I was grateful for the family members holding up my mom. I was grateful for my sister’s own friends, whom she called family, for being there for her and with her.
On the Worst
You know how most of us have that “worst thing that could happen” lurking in the backs of our minds? Well, that worst thing happening to my dad was mine. My father was my safe place.
In my mind, no one loved me more, no one accepted me more, no one let me be myself more, no one was prouder of me, no one would love my (unborn) children more, no one would protect me more, no one would ever care more about me and what happened in my life, than him. He was not perfect (and, who really is?), but he was my number one fan, and I was his.
And now, he was gone.
I wasn’t supposed to speak at his funeral. And suddenly, I had to walk up to the altar and address a crowded church. My memory fails to remember anything before or after that speech. I just remember saying this: “I thank God for lending him [my father] to me for 23 years…”
I promise you; I don’t know where that came from. I can only infer it was a higher power turning on my survival-mode switch, helping me make sense of a father-less existence through the lens of optimism (or, positive realism as I prefer to call it).
Regardless of religion, faith or spiritual beliefs – gratitude saved my life. It helped me survive without anger, bitterness and cynicism. It helped me survive my father’s death with hope, acceptance, and peace of mind. And even though the pain never left, it was gratitude that allowed me to find the perspective I needed to move on. To keep on living a wholehearted life.
It reminded me of how lucky, (and blessed) we were for having a father who was cautious and thoughtful enough to make the arrangements – those that ensured we weren’t left on the street if something happened to him.
He made sure we didn’t have to leave our home, nor be left at the mercy of any family members to take us in. I was fortunate to have a father who believed education was the most valuable inheritance. One who made sure we learned English and who taught me to be independent and reliable; A father who loved me unconditionally, and who tried to teach me the value of money and financial freedom. Much of what I experienced was through the lens of “this could be worse”, which at the time was the only rationale I could accept.
However, it’s not about accepting adversity by thinking things could be worse, because you know what? They could be better, too.
It’s about remembering where you’ve been, what you’ve gone through and where you are now – to remind yourself of how far you’ve come and to admire the good that sits with you and that has happened to you. It’s almost too easy to fixate on what’s wrong and to find the negative in every situation. Yet, being able to recognize all the goodness in your life, to value what’s going well for you (amid the struggle) – and to do it consistently – has the potential to change your life.
And this is what I refer to as a Gratitude Mindset.
On Cultivating Gratitude
About six years ago I read this in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “So, by changing your mind, you change everything.” I’m not promising these actions will change everything. What I can say from experience, is that they have the potential to help you sneak in gratitude into your life, as you sneak in vegetables into your kids’ meals.
These are some simple ways that help me keep my perspective, and my gratitude, in check:
Starting and ending the day listing the five things you’re most grateful for. From finding your favorite plant-based protein powder (that’s usually out of stock), to your health, your dog and your spouse’s kindness.
Acknowledging when shit almost hit the fan, and didn’t. From thanking every deity that prevented you from crashing into that parked car you didn’t see, to regaining your breath after realizing you almost sent that message to the wrong person…or group chat.
Remembering the epic. And imagining your life without it. From the time you met your spouse or your life partner, to the birth of your children, to getting your pet Shih Tzu, to that soul-nourishing trip, to getting your dream job. Nothing was inevitable. These things happened for you and they could well have missed you. It can be powerful to remind yourself of how extraordinary it is to have these people (and pets) in your life, and to have experienced these moments. Can you imagine life without them? (Me neither).
On Emotional Validation
Feeling gratitude does not dismiss feeling frustration, sadness, discomfort or disappointment. It can coexist with these strong, and at times, overwhelming feelings. My objective is to remind you that even if your perspective goes for a long walk, you always have the power to bring her back, and to potentially transform your life with a mindset (and an attitude) of gratitude.
This piece was written and contributed by:
PR & marketing pro by day, wellness writer by night. IIN health coach, yoga teacher (and student…always a student!), and advocate for most things wellness. Jit finds joy in a cup of scorching coffee, in making the words of others shine (a.k.a. copyediting), and in rediscovering paradise in her native Panama – where she lives with her husband, his son and their Shih Tzu, Valentina.