The Dance of Grief and Gratitude: A Personal Reflection
Written by: Lacey Adams, LMFT, ’19 MAMFT
Grief is in everything. With every change, we encounter grief. Although it is one of the most uncomfortable feelings one can experience, grief is not something to be avoided or dismissed. I have worked with grief both professionally and personally. After CTS, I have been serving as a school therapist in my role as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist primarily working with teenagers and their families until recently when I decided to open my own private practice. In the counseling room, I have had the blessing and honor of walking alongside clients in some of their hardest grief and drawn to witness both the chaos and beauty of grief. However, I never imagined I would be invited into my own grief so suddenly. I lost my mom unexpectedly 6 months ago. When this happened, I was in shock and it felt like my whole world had ended. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice an invitation to the beauty of gratitude as well. To give more context, I had been in the hardest year of my life personally and professionally and was a week away from transitioning from my first job post grad where I had developed deep care for my student clients and their families, many of whom had also experienced either losing their mother leading them to start therapy, or losing their mother while in therapy. The irony of this was not lost on me. Here I am, having walked in such sacred spaces alongside my students and their families learning more about their mothers and helping them re-member their loved one’s role in their everyday life beyond them being physically around anymore, and now I find myself personally having to live into my own work. Nothing prepares you for grief, no matter how small it appears or how long it has been.
In the next days, there was this ongoing telling of my mom’s passing and inviting people to hold me in love unimaginable. While I was away for my mom’s funeral, my community showed up in ways that I could have never imagined, even though many of them had never even met my mom. I had people who chose to love me by taking care of my apartment and rearranging it so that when I came back, it didn’t look the same as when my mom passed. There were so many people who sent flowers, bought meals, continued checking in and have continued to surround me even 6 months later. I had never experienced a love surrounding me like this before and I felt an unspoken gratitude that I came to know as my mom’s love being given back and around me.
When I came back, I had to wrap up with my clients and honor the work we had accomplished together. Dealing with compounded grief with loss of relationships, even though it was my choice to leave, plus dealing with my mom’s death became an interesting dance of grief in itself. Grief doesn’t compartmentalize and separate just because it comes from different spaces. A loss is a loss, no matter what, and your body carries that loss together. What I learned the most though was through the loss, there was a slowing down, intentionality of seeing who were the participants in my life and the mixed beauty of the gratitude amidst the grief. I remember crying my eyes out the night I ended my last day in my school therapy position and had gone to dinner with some of the influential school team members that had welcomed me and worked alongside me. I cried because in the beauty of the goodbyes, I only wanted to share the news with my mom who had watched me stress and coordinate exactly how I wanted to end well with everyone and felt I had done it, but she wasn’t there to call upon. Yet, as I was crying, I remember this sense that she was with me and was watching me in every session, a presence to which her physical body would have never been permitted.
It’s a weird concept that grief and gratitude go together. I remember first having language for this when I watched a clip from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert interviewing Andrew Garfield on his experience of the loss of his mom. Garfield said, “I hope this grief stays with me because it’s the unexpressed love that I never got to tell her” (Garfield, A. (2021, November 23). Interview by Stephen Colbert [Video recording]). In sitting with and even inviting in my own grief, this has become true for me as well.
There is both a missing of all the potential future moments and a gratitude for all that my mom instilled in me and the life I got to experience with her. There is an honoring of my mom’s spirit and gift of how intentionally she loved and an invitation to exist as a product of her love. Inviting an attitude of gratitude for loss seems strange, and yet I have not found that I can separate the two. There has been a grounding process, both in my personal walk and witnessing the walk and balance of grief in the therapy room, that invites one to acknowledge the magnitude of what has been with the invitation of how it may continue to be. I described grief to one of my clients in this way: “Grief is the present experience of that which has come and gone in the past and the loss of what could be in the future.” There is an active participation that is inherent in grief. For me, it is one of the feelings that gives no other option but to feel it and be with it. Grief demands to be felt. It demands that one remain present with it, and denying its demands does not render it obsolete. I have found that when I listen to grief’s demands and sit with it, gratitude always finds a way to show up and sit with me. I don’t claim that all grief and loss equates to the same levels of gratitude; I know this idea of gratitude being inherently linked with grief may seem a stretch in situations where harm and abuse and oppression exist and I want to be mindful that I am not saying in every situation be thankful for what has happened. I don’t believe that and have witnessed the harm this message can give. I see these harmful situations include grief for what should have been—safety, justice, acceptance, unconditional love, belonging – and the gratitude comes in the reckoning of this grief becoming awareness of knowing you did deserve safety, justice, acceptance, unconditional love, belonging and you DO deserve safety, justice, acceptance, unconditional love, and belonging just for being you. I wasn’t thankful that my mom died unexpectedly, but I am thankful that she showed me an unconditional love that is life giving and how now I expect to be loved. With that said, I hope this small reflection has met you wherever you are in the process of your grief with grace and understanding. Whatever manner your grief may be showing up for you, know it is valid, it is real, and it is not easy. May you know that you are seen in it and through it as a participant in the tension between grief and gratitude and your journey is your own.
For more information about working through grief or connecting to therapy, or to connect with Lacey, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Garfield, A. (2021, November 23). Interview by Stephen Colbert [Video recording]. “I Hope This Grief Stays With Me” – Andrew Garfield Fights Back Tears And Celebrates His Mom, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_u_TswLQ4ws