Embracing Gratitude

Two years ago today, I brought my husband home from Madrid aboard an air ambulance, guided the entire way by a massive full moon outside the plane window. I felt hopeful for his recovery after a massive brain hemorrhage, and was aching for a return to our life together. Sadly, that never happened.

These past two years have that juxtaposed feeling of both flying by at lightning speed while dragging on endlessly. Time has helped me heal, as well as gain some perspective by reflecting back on the emotional journey I’ve taken since the day Greg collapsed. That journey has included many of the widely understood stages of grief.

Denial—I lay in a hotel in Spain the night after Greg collapsed thinking, “This can’t possibly be happening.” The next day I told our friends to go on with the trip without me, that Greg was going to be okay and I’d get him home, in complete denial about the extent to which his brain had been damaged. Even months later when he was not recovering, I was unwilling to accept that he might still die.

Bargaining—Just let him live. Just let him know who I am. Just let him respond to the kids. Just let him remember that he loves me. Just let him hold his grandson. I’ll do anything. Just don’t let me lose the love of my life.

Depression—I tried to run from my sadness for a few months after Greg died as I busied myself with remodeling a condo while waiting for the arrival of my first grandchild. But grief eventually caught up to me, and I spent months rehashing everything we had been through. I cried—really, really sobbed—more than I thought humanly possible during the last few months of 2017.

Acceptance—I don’t know exactly when I began to accept my loss, but I do know that now, two years later, I feel hopeful. My life is full, I feel fortunate, and I am mostly happy. Even though I still miss Greg and think of him every single day, I believe I will always carry him with me in my heart.

There’s just one classic stage of grief I seemed to have missed–Anger. I expected to be angry when I was in Spain for two months. I was many things—scared, frustrated, impatient, and sad—but not angry. The same was true during the months of caring for Greg in Denver. I was exhausted and overwhelmed, but not angry. Even after he died, I was devastated, but I didn’t really feel angry.

Any situational annoyance or anger I felt during these past two years just melted away quickly. Instead, what I have felt, every single day from the first day of his collapse through these many months after his death, has been gratitude.

For the incredible people in Spain who came to our aid.

For my hand-holders who helped me navigate the two months abroad while Greg was in the UCI in Madrid.

For the friends who decorated my Christmas tree before I got home from Spain.

For the young couple who stayed with my dogs while I was away.

For the neuro team in Denver who guided me through both his care and then letting him go.

For the many people who did or said kind things to support me during Greg’s hospitalization and after his death.

For the crowd of friends who honored Greg at the celebration of his life.

For Greg’s colleagues who continued to reach out to me and support me.

For my wide circle of friends who have made a point of including me.

For my extended family who have been so strong and loving.

For my incredible kids, and my first grandbaby.

For two years, despite a grueling journey with an unfathomable ending, I have been overwhelmed by a deep sense of gratitude. I have written a record number of thank you notes during this time—nearly 200 of them. Not because people needed one or expected one, but because expressing my gratitude amplified it. Acknowledging those feelings buoyed me emotionally and helped me heal. And I’ve been embracing that feeling, holding tight to my gratitude, for two full years.

Until this Thanksgiving.

I was on a trip in early November and when I returned to my empty house, the silence pressed down on me, reminding me that Greg was gone. I turned on music—even joined Spotify finally—trying to fill the void. I tried to focus on my holiday menu and shopping and cooking, yet I couldn’t shake the funk. As Thanksgiving approached, I sniped at people, complained incessantly about stupid little things, begrudgingly prepared the holiday meal at my house, and was short tempered with most everyone from cashiers in stores to family and friends. As my anger mounted, I also became angry with myself for being angry—a vicious cycle most certainly.

I hated that I let what even I could tell were petty things impact my time together with my family during the holiday. So I did what came naturally to me: I started analyzing the situation. I dug deep to try to understand what was happening to me emotionally. I listened to a TEDx talk by a woman who had lost her husband, I read about the stages of grief, and I tried to truly understand my mental state. Was I just experiencing the grief cycle out of order, finally dealing with my anger? And more importantly, was it okay—healthy—if I was angry? I certainly had every right to be, I reasoned. I had lost the love of my life far too young.

There was only one problem with that rationalization: I didn’t like the way anger made me feel.

There was a reason I wasn’t angry when Greg was sick or after he died. I had that fresh perspective that people often gain when they have endured grief and loss: all of the small petty things just really didn’t matter. I wrote about this in my memoir, about letting go of the little things and rediscovering my love for Greg. It was an unexpected gift that came from our tragedy. The woman from the TEDx talk said the same thing, likening the experience to throwing her whole life with her husband into a giant sifter. All the petty things fell through to the bottom, and what was left in the sifter was their love, their commitment to each other, and nothing else.

After days of wrestling with my emotions, I recognized that I wasn’t really angry. But somehow, two years after Greg’s collapse, I felt like I had lost sight of the perspective I had gained. As a result, I was allowing the unimportant little annoyances of everyday life to make me testy. It had been my understanding of just how fortunate I was, despite tragedy, that had carried me through the most difficult thing I had ever faced in my life. Losing that painfully gained perspective was what was dragging me down. Forgetting to be grateful was allowing negativity to creep in.

I certainly don’t want to have to face another tragedy in order to remember this lesson, so I’m being intentional now. When I feel annoyed in any situation, I try to think of at least one thing that’s happening at that moment to be grateful for. I designed some personal cards of gratitude, featuring the dragonfly image from my memoir on the front, and I’m looking forward to writing some long overdue notes, knowing that expressing my gratitude will feel good. And I’m trying to embrace the holiday season as it is for me now—without Greg, yes, but with so much to be thankful for.

For being able to spend time in NY with my middle son and his fiancé and her parents next weekend.

For the chance to celebrate my best friend’s birthday with her in person this year.

For the family who will come to my house for roast suckling pig on Christmas Eve.

For time to enjoy sitting in front of the fire with my dogs.

For my grandson who is just starting to talk and said “Santa” yesterday.

And for the friends who will gather at my house on New Year’s Eve to ring in 2019.

Forget the resolutions to lose weight, exercise more, read more books, or the many other things that have filled my lists in years past. I’ll be making just one resolution this year: embrace gratitude every single day.

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