Meaning Mondays: Between Gratitude and Grief Edition

For the last few weeks, I’ve been monitoring the rise and fall of Leo.

Leo has his good days and not so good days. Sometimes he’s alert and raring to go, eating well and enthusiastically. Other times he’s sluggish and unresponsive, with little appetite. Last week it got a bit scary, even, when he took a dive and I wasn’t sure he’d recover from it.

But he did. Recover, that is. And now he continues to complain vigorously about his visits to the hospital for treatment. Which isn’t surprising, since he’s making the trip five times a week. Yet in the end he’s always a brave patient, and always excited to get home.

The thing is, though, the treatments can’t keep up with his declining kidneys. So no doubt about it, he’s on the down slope, and his test results confirm that.

In case you’re wondering, Leo is a cat. But I’m guessing that the picture probably gave it away.

Like all of us, his days are numbered. It’s just that he’s closer to the end of his than you and me (knock on wood).

Last fall I wrote my first love letter to Leo: Life Lessons Learned from Leo.

That was eight months after he’d gotten his life back from the brink and had blossomed like nobody’s business. In fact, everything was coming up roses for Leo. Until December, that is, when he was diagnosed with yet another malady, this one incurable: Chronic Renal Failure (CRF).

Amazingly, though, he blossomed still more when treatment began.

For a while it was perpetual spring in Leo’s world. He became a visible and bittersweet reminder that each day of life brings us one step closer to death. So we sure as heck better seize the day, like Leo.

When the CRF was first diagnosed, the doctor predicted six months to a year of good quality life.

Well, here we are, just past the six-month mark.

No real surprises. All of it expected, more or less. Especially since this isn’t my first go-round with a CRF cat.

So how am I doing? I’m practicing gratitude left and right.

After all, there are so many things to be grateful for. I thought I was going to lose Leo a year and a half ago. But now I’ve had this gift of many months to love and care for him. To rejoice that he’s come back to himself, all playful and cuddly. Not to mention the out-of-this-world bond that we’ve fashioned together.

I’m also grateful that I have a flexible schedule that allows me to be with him as he nears the end. Sometimes, we sit together and stare out the window at the birds and bees. And often he gravitates toward me when I’m writing, sharing my lap with the computer. He’s here now, as a matter of fact, perhaps divining in some feline way that I’m writing about him. (But it’s probably more likely that he’s attracted to the heat of the laptop.)

Of course, if we’re talking gratitude, I must point out that my other cats are hale and hearty. Plus, Leo’s twin brother, Max, is still going strong. Which means a small part of Leo will live on, at least for a while.

Yup, I could go on and on about gratitude. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

So how come I feel so crummy?

I was sitting on the bed the other day, folding laundry and half consciously ticking off my list of things to be grateful for, when I noticed a sensation inside of me. A certain kind of emptiness. Hollow.

I know this feeling, I thought. I know what this is. This is masked grief. Grief that wants to come out. And gratitude decidedly does not make it better. In fact, too much gratitude makes it worse, shoving it into the shadows. Stripping it of meaning. Minimizing it, as if it didn’t belong here.

Because, you see, there’s a fine line between practicing gratitude and minimizing our feelings.

And you know what? I’ve had a series of good cries since that moment of insight on the bed.

So gratitude, please take a hike for now.

Truth be told, it sucks that Leo is soon to leave this world. He got a raw deal, and at nine-years-old he’s far too young. And there’s a whole host of feelings swirling inside of me around that: sadness about losing him, pain that he’s had to go through so much, relief that the intensity of care-giving will soon be over, anger that his life is ending too soon, bittersweet love and joy when I’m with him, worry about knowing the right time to let him go.

And yes, gratitude is in the mix too, but it’s just one among many feelings.

Yet sometimes, we go to gratitude in a somewhat knee-jerk, unconscious way, with fuzzy hopes of bypassing emotions, like grief.

I did, and I’m not sure what came over me. Perhaps I was momentarily mesmerized by the gratitude bandwagon. We hear about it all the time, after all. An attitude of gratitude. But I do know it’s more complicated than that, not only from my own life experiences but my work with others.

I see clients who’ve lost a home or a job or a parent. Are in the midst of a floundering relationship. Didn’t expect to feel so aimless after they retired. Don’t know what they want. Feel marooned at midlife. Can’t get traction on goals and dreams. Are facing a health crisis.

And at some point, in the beginning of our work together, they will probably say, in a faltering voice, “But I’m grateful for what I have.”

Vague question marks appear in the air at the end of these statements, and deep down they sense that gratitude is not going to cut it if it’s the only thing they’re bringing to the table of their transition.

So I encourage them to feel all of their feelings, even those that seem icky. Because more often than not, it’s the icky ones that get us to the other side, where we can make a new beginning.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Gratitude, applied wisely, is a good thing.

But it’s not the answer for everything. So these days I’m working on carving out a spot somewhere between gratitude and grief. And finding it’s not a bad place to be at all.

OK, your turn.

Please share your experiences of gratitude and grief.

And do you think gratitude can be overdone, to the point where it minimizes important feelings?

But most significant: Do you want to see more adorable photos of Leo? If so, click here.

 


44 thoughts on “Meaning Mondays: Between Gratitude and Grief Edition

  1. Grief is something that we have to work through and sit with and recognize and embrace… and then we can find the gratitude and the celebration of life – and sometimes I think they go hand in hand.
    Maggie, now 15, is now skin and bone. She spent the last week under the bed, not eating much, not talking much, and yet purring and tail raised in happiness when she ventured out. I have spent the last week wondering how much longer we had with her. We have both spent time with her talking and sitting and listening to her purr.
    Maggie has seen me through a lot – and when my daughter was an infant, the purr of the cat or the wonder of this furry friend calmed her when nothing else could. The idea of her passing brings me to tears that I welcome and embrace just as I recognize and embrace all that Maggie ahs given and shared.

    If there is one thing I have learned from my younger cats – it is that nothing is too small not to receive a fair amount of attention or interest… and nothing is too big for contemplation – all of it, big and small, gratitude and grief – are all aspects of life.

    Take care Patty –

    • Thanks so much for sharing about Maggie. You touch on something so important here, that our animal companions become markers for our lives, reminding us of the years passing and the times they comforted us or made us laugh. Or so many things. Losing anyone, people or animals, puts us into transition, but sometimes I think with animals it is even more so. I really appreciate your thoughtful words.

  2. I am extremely grateful for everything that I have but I would not be real if I do not allow myself to feel sorry for myself every now and again. There are always others in the world who are worse off and for that I should be humbled and thankful for everything that I have. But, some days it’s tough — really tough! Being grateful doesn’t seem to come naturally for most of us. For me, I must make a conscious decision each and every day to be thankful and to be positive. Most days I succeed. Some days I fail. And that’s okay.

    Amazing how many lessons we can learn from our animals!

    A great post… thank you!

    PS I’m grateful that I have the ability and means to meet your work and to be inspired from across the ocean.

    • Thank you so much, Tracy. One of the reasons I love your work so much is that you allow yourself to show us all of you, and both the good days and bad days. And you know, about that “should,” as in “I should be humbled” or grateful, as many will say, I’m really beginning to question that for myself. Because I’m me, not any of those others, and I don’t think it ever makes me feel better when I compare myself to someone else.

  3. First of all, Leo is aptly named. He is a fine and regal fellow! I am so sorry to hear of his health problems. I know the pain of losing a beloved and treasured animal companion, having outlived four of them. I also know the wisdom of loving that well that must be left ere long. I think it’s the best way to honor them.

    I am SO glad you brought this up about gratitude. Gratitude is great, but sometimes I have felt that people paste on the happy grateful face and spout the company line about it, when really they want to scream and throw something. Sometimes I feel like this: I am grateful there are those who love me even when I am having a meltdown, when my heart is broken, when I’m furious at life’s unfairness. And when I am in that, it doesn’t mean I am not grateful nor mindful of the good things I’ve got. But when something hurts, you get to say “ouch.”

    You know, the older I get, the less I care what I’m “supposed” to do or feel. And when I’m honest, whether it’s pretty or not, someone always says to me that they have felt the same. And that’s when we can help each other.

    Um, okay, give me a hand down from this soapbox. 😉

    • You’ve so beautifully explored the paradox of emotions, here, Shay, and it’s just what I needed today. Thanks for that! I especially resonate with what you say about pasting on the happy/grateful face. It’s almost like we’re programmed to do that. Clients will often come into my office and I’ll ask how they’re doing, and they will knee-jerk respond with, “fine.” When clearly they’re not. I do it too sometimes. I guess we sometimes think people don’t want to hear about anything that’s not fine, but then it all just gets bottled up and eventually we crack. So please, stay on that soapbox as long as you want. You are very wise.

  4. Oh Patty, our cat died of the same condition and I love what Shay says; ‘when something hurts, you get to say “ouch.”’
    Is living authentically so hard that we even cannot allow feelings in case we think we do that wrong too.
    For me it is about moderation, for me it is being aware of when I indulge and grief is becoming something else.
    The heart lets feelings well up and I cannot but listen to those as my heart will never abuse them. When my ego-type mind gets involved I start to pay attention and usually see less honest feelings emerge, like gratitude when I do not feel it, or being ‘strong’ or playing victim.
    What a great way to deal with grief by doing what you are doing, make the most of it and thank you for keeping us ‘posted’. Much love to you all, xox Wilma

    • Hi Wilma – Thanks so much for your sweet words. I love how you remind us all that the way through is in listening to our hearts. And I do think your plea about living authentically is an important one to consider. So very many people think they do feelings “wrong” and in our society we’re not very good at being in the flow of feelings, especially around other people. It scares us. Someone said this to me today. They realized they were scared by one of my feelings, because it was real. And it wasn’t even a very scary feeling that I was sharing! Love and hugs back to you, my friend.

    • Thanks, Eric. I do feel lucky to have this time with him. I probably need it more than him, but it’s a way to come to terms with the good-bye.

  5. Patty, this broke my heart. It’s been many many years ago now, but I still have dreams about my beloved border collie being alive. I still feel a little empty every time I wake from those dreams. She was a huge part of my life in the brief two years we had her.

    I agree with you. Grief is what it is. Gratitude is what it is. Neither should ever be a mask for the other. Both are important.

    Life is hard for everyone, no matter how comfortable we make ourselves within it. We do folks a serious disservice when we compare their pain and suffering to that of others. The number of times I’ve heard people say, “Well, at least you’re not cold and starving on the streets” is heartbreaking. Of course, I’m grateful to have food to eat and a roof over my head, but suffering is suffering no matter who experiences it.

    And that’s why I don’t join in with those who acted like I was strange when I fell apart that day when S.O. died (my border collie). She meant something whether I assigned meaning to her or not. She was my timid, nervous, yet big hearted friend and I miss her.

    If it’s not presumptious of me, I’d like to offer up some words now and again for you and Leo. Sometimes, praying is about the only thing I can do.

    • Tony, I’m so glad to hear your story about S.O. Border collies are very special dogs, and I love how you describe her: “timid, nervous, yet big-hearted.” I could use those same words to describe Leo. I like it too that you acknowledge that life is hard. You bet! That doesn’t mean it’s not wonderful, but we seem to want to bypass the hard sometimes. Doesn’t work, does it? And yes, I absolutely agree about the comparing thing. Doesn’t do a darn thing for me. And the older I get, the more I realize it doesn’t really even make any sense. So I’m honored that you’d like to offer up a few words for us. I will never turn down a prayer, my friend. Thank you.

  6. What a beautiful cat, Patty. Just gorgeous! One good thing about this is that by going through this experience you realize how much you love Leo NOW and you can take full advantage of your time together. As opposed to him passing suddenly. I know it’s not easy; I’ve lost a few pets before. They do have a special way of touching those deep parts of ourselves… guess it’s the unconditional love that they offer us. Hugs to you.

    • I’m with you on that, Davina. The unconditional love that they give is such a gift. And you’re right about having the advantage of time to spend with him. I’ve had animals die unexpectedly, one in my arms, and it flattened me. I was a wreck. Seriously. So thank you for your sweet words and hugs right back to you, my friend.

  7. I was just telling my daughter the other night that loving, letting go, and feeling pain/grief must be the hardest part of being human. We get attached only to have to learn to let go and the pain of it is excrutiating. I agree with you, ALL feelings need to be acknowledged. These days I tend to go with the flow. I feel what I feel for whatever period of time I need to feel it. My experience is that my basic life force will take over again sooner or later. Because beyond the injustice, the changes, the sorrow, we’re programmed to love and share that love.
    Bittersweet.
    My brother-in-law, who lost a daughter to cancer last year, always tells me: “we’re all half full and half empty.” Honor both sides and live a full life.
    Maryse

    • Yes, Maryse, bittersweet is one of my favorite words these days. You’re so wise, trusting that the basic life force will arrive and take the reins, eventually. It always works that way, doesn’t it? And I find that particularly comforting, how it never fails to assert itself. I gotta say, too, that your brother-in-law is brilliant. “We’re all half full and half empty.” Wow. I’m going to have to remember that. Thanks so much for sharing that.

  8. I think in general, many of us struggle with just being. Our mind, in its basic function to want to understand things, clashes with various emotions that we may be unwilling to acknowledge. It may be as simple as the mind’s inability to understand feelings, especially when they’re multi-layered and, to the mind, should not commingle. For me, I’m quite familiar with grief and emptiness. Some days they’re more prominent; most days, they’re barely noticeable.

    Great to see you posting again.

    I think Leo is just gorgeous.

    • Thanks, Belinda. He is a beautiful boy. And I’m happy you pointed out how our minds are just doing their jobs, trying to make sense of things that ultimately can’t be made sense of. The mind is very good for some things; for others, not so much. I seem to keep learning that over and over.

  9. I think you touch-on one of the possible flaws in the ‘positive thinking’ movement – suppression of feelings. I believe that suppression starts with judgment and the assignment of labels – good/bad being key. When we assign ‘bad’ to a feeling, of course we want to suppress it with happy thoughts! We have to remember….the labels are ours. If we simple stopped labeling and experienced all the feeling life has to offer, I think we’d be easier on ourselves and be living in a more natural state. Grief is natural — neither good or bad — at least in my opinion. Thanks for sharing. I enjoy the authenticity and honesty (labels, I know!) of your blog.

    • Thank you so much. I agree with you, and I’m so glad you brought that up about labels. When we slap on those labels, which we have a tendency to do about emotions even if we’re not part of the positivity movement, then we block ourselves from feeling them. We don’t want to feel “bad.” But all those internalized feelings build up and suppressing them with false happiness no longer does the trick. Sometimes, too, I think we’re confused about how to actually feel our feelings. I’m writing more about that next week.

  10. Great article, very wise. Gratitude, compassion, acceptance, metta,forgiveness…these are wonderful, wise concepts, but as concepts they are short. It is with some experience that I realized, for example, that acceptance is not something I do, it is something I stop doing. I stop resisting.

    And so, at least for me, these heart concepts are more about letting go, rather than practicing a particular thing. We don’t do well if we use these concepts to mask grief or anger or fear.

    Thanks, very clear wisdom here.

    • Oh yes, Kaushik, that letting go thing just keeps coming back, doesn’t it? I’m so glad you mentioned the word “practice.” Thrown around a lot these days. But all of these practices, gratitude among them, don’t seem so much like practices to me, but rather emotions and feelings that may or may not flow through us, at any given time. I want to stay open to the flow of all of it: compassion and fear, anger and forgiveness, gratitude and grief. So thank you right back for all of your wisdom.

  11. Patty,

    I must admit I sort of sobbed through most of this post, but not in a bad way. It’s just that you hit upon some of my strong feelings about my old dog.

    We’ve had the same type of year — ups and downs. Right now, she’s doing well, but we never know. She has a bit of age-related anxiety at night…in human’s they call it “sun-downer’s syndrome”…which makes it hard for her to settle down and it’s hard for us to watch.

    Then again she’s still happy. She wags her tail and gets excited about the possibility of treats. She loves it when JC comes home. She even rolls over in the grass, even though it makes her very dizzy. I try to focus on these happy moments.

    Having animals all my life has taught me a lot about letting go…you almost have learn this to some degree if you continue to have animal companions. While I understand it, I still feel and allow my feelings of sadness when I lose one of my animal friends.

    On another note, I’m excited about your upcoming posts. I look forward to your self-exploration and creativity:~)

    • Ah, I find a good sob now and then to be a thing of beauty, Sara, so thank you for sharing that. And I loved reading more about your dog. I remember you had some stuff going on with her in the recent past, and I so get what you mean about it being hard to watch. Whether it’s their discomfort, or weight loss, or whatever, towards the end of their lives it’s a delicate dance to determine when they are still happy (tail wagging, or purring in Leo’s case) and when it is time to let go. Yep, I’ve learned a lot about that too. Many letting go’s with animals over the years, like you. The biggest learning for me is that I really need time to process the letting go, and not shove it aside and expect it to be any different from other losses. Actually, sometimes I think it’s harder, because their lives are so comparatively short. Thanks so much for your sweet words.

  12. Hi Patti,
    Yes say “ouch” I think we’ve been taught by mothers to minimize our feelings. To think of someone who has it worse than us is what my mom said to me, and that was her sincere way of trying to alleviate my pain. I can’t say it didn’t work but at the same time, I have a right to my pain.

    There is no hierarchy of pain. Period. Ouch my friend ouch.
    Take good care of yourself. Tess xo

    • OK! OUCH! Yes, that feels good. You’re a wise one, Tess. I do believe my mom did a little of that teaching about minimizing emotions that you speak of. Probably taught to her by her mom. I come from a long line of stoic women, but I’m doing my best to change that story. Thanks a bunch!

  13. Hi Patty,

    I share your love of cats. Such amazing, intuitive, playful creatures. My two furry boys have taught me much about unconditional love and going for the gusto. What a handsome boy you’ve got! Leo has such pretty markings.

    A few friends had cats with something kinda similar. When they began giving them wet food they got a lot better. So many vets promote a 100% dry food diet for some bizarre reason. If I ate a steady diet of crackers I probably couldn’t poop either!

    And that extreme of all dry food leads me to your question of all gratitude.

    We need to express the range of our emotions. When you don’t that’s when people get into trouble. I’m a big proponent of gratitude as long as folks don’t hide behind it. Since I wrote my post on hiding, I’m keying into all the things we humans hide behind. Too much gratitude or forced gratitude can be another one.

    Let the pendulum of emotion swing!

    Give Leo a feel better hug for me.

    Giulietta

    • Hi Giulietta – Oh yes, the wet food vs. dry food diet. We went through all that, and actually that condition has been managed. But not by any specific kind of catfood, but rather by pumpkin. It works wonders. I thought we were free and clear after that got all straightened out (or should I say pooped out?), but this new malady is kidney disease. No cure for it, unfortunately. Subcutaneous fluids and a long downhill slide, but we are lucky to have had six good months before he really started losing weight.

      I so agree with you about expressing the range of emotions. You get exactly what I was trying to say here! I’m going to have to go back and read your post on hiding. Sounds like it’s right up my alley.

      Thanks so much for the hugs and kind words.

  14. Oh my. This is almost too much for me. I cannot believe how much I love my dog, how much she has worked her way into my heart and into our lives. And even though she’s not yet 2 years old, I cannot bear to think of losing her. It’s just amazing, the way our pets meld to us.

    The gratitude is important. Of course, I wouldn’t want to go without my pup just because I know it will be heartbreaking when she dies. Of course, I choose love even with its counterpart loss. And so remembering to be thankful for what I have is important.

    But I completely agree, Patty. We shouldn’t let gratitude take over and force out grief. Grief is necessary. Maybe grief is a part of gratitude? If you weren’t grateful for Leo, you wouldn’t be so sad to lose him.

    This makes me want to go home and take my pup on an extra long walk!!

    I do hope you take lots of time at the cabin this summer, and please post your inspiring words when you can. It seems there is a natural rhythm of slowing down in the summer. Long weekends, getting away, enjoying the most beautiful season – this is important and helps us re-energize. You and Leo have a lovely time watching birds and taking naps in the sun!

    • Perfect way to say, it Eva – a melding into each other. I love that. Thanks so much for sharing about your dog. So smart of you too to hone in on grief and gratitude being flip sides of the same coin. Very wise. And we will think of you when napping and gazing out the window at those birds!

  15. I am sorry to hear about Leo. Grief is a process and it is an important process to allow. Masking grief creates more problems for us. We can be grateful and still feel sad that is okay. There are times where we simply need to process what we are feeling even if that feeling does not feel so good. Follow your process, practice gratitude and simply be. Love to you and Leo.

    • Oh, thank you so much, Mark, for your sweet and loving words. Carving out space to simply be is exactly what I’m trying to do right now. It is what I crave and need the most. No surprise that you already know that!

  16. Dear Patty,

    A beautiful post and the timing is remarkable. My next post is entitled: The Happy Face Syndrome and as you can guess it is about this very thing.

    I, too, appreciate and have benefited tremendously from expanding my perspective with appreciation. It has changed my life.

    But, it’s imbalanced when it’s at the expense of feeling like we can’t have any other emotions. When we love deeply, as you point out, we attach. The other side of the coin is it hurts when we lose that which we love, which is inevitable at some point.

    So, who are we kidding? I’ve been there, too, as your describing, lingering in the gratitude, keeping the grief at bay.

    But, it never works and we miss out on the juice of life. The grief, if faced, brings us through to a new dawn eventually. If not faced, we drag pretty heavy baggage along behind us, and ironically squelch our ability to fully experience joy.

    I feel for you and your journey with your cat. My sweet Pippy was 14 with the same condition. I stayed home all the time and had to run out to the store at one point. I came home and his little spirit had left. I cleaned him, wrapped him in my best silk, and held him and talked with him.

    Lots of people would think that’s out there, but no matter. I think you’ll understand. I then found just the right spot to bury him.

    Love is grand.

    Thank you for being the lovely being you are and for sharing this balanced perspective once again. I appreciate your balance.

    Lauren

    • Hi Lauren – Your words are like poetry to me. Every phrase resonates so beautifully: the juice of life, a new dawn, squelching our ability to fully experience joy. I love it when I find I’m on the same wavelength as other writers, so I’m really looking forward to reading your post. And I so appreciate hearing the story of Pippy. No, I don’t think that’s “out there” at all. But of course you knew that about me! Thank you so much for your kind words. They really made my day after a rather tough weekend.

  17. I think it’s such an important distinction you make here, Patty — we can use manufactured gratitude as a distraction from what’s really going on inside us, or we can discover real gratitude by diving into the experience we’re having and finding out what it’s like on the other side.

    • So true, Chris. I like the idea of diving in. Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. It is the only way through. Thanks.

  18. I lost my beloved pug last August, so I can so sympathize.

    About gratitude: thanks for writing this, I’ve never seen anybody else address it. I realized at one point recently that gratitude for me always felt a bit like the booby prize, as in, well I don’t have what I really want so I guess I’ll just settle for what I got. And be grateful for it, damn it. After I identified that, I realized I better make sure I was allowing my feelings full expression and then work on my gratitude. Much better way to go.

    • You’re so wise, Charlotte. The booby prize thing resonates deeply. And feelings first, gratitude second is the perfect way to state it. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  19. Patty –

    Thanks for sharing your very personal feelings of gratitude and grief. I don’t think it is strange to have both at the same time. Joy and sorrow are really two sides of the same coin and we are complex creatures. I know that I’ve experienced strong and conflicting emotions throughout my life and learning to understand them is one of my lifelong projects. I can shut out strong negative emotion and put up barriers, however I know that somewhere deep down it is still circulating in the back of my mind. I think that expressing myself be it through joy or tears seems to be the best way. From this post, I really heard love coming through most strongly and that is beautiful thing. Thanks Patty.

    Phil

    • Aw, thanks Phil. For noticing the love and all the rest of it. You are so right. Love is a many splendored thing, as the old song says, but it can hurt and feel sad too.

  20. Pingback: Meaning Mondays: A Simple Philosophy Emerges « Why Not Start Now?

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