by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, M.A.P.S., BCC
My best friend recently moved away. We have been friends since high school and have shared a lot through the years. She became one of my mother’s “adopted” daughters years ago and one of the family. Her own daughter once shared that she always thought we were family and that it wasn’t till she was in her 20’s that she finally understood that we were “not” blood relatives. When my friend left, I reached out to someone close to express my sadness about my friend’s leaving. The support that I received regarding my grief was, “sorry to hear and an attitude of gratitude.” I was appreciative of the “sorry” response as I tried to hold the tears back, but they came anyway. I wasn’t so appreciative of the “attitude of gratitude,” at least, not at first. Let me explain.
Grief encompasses all of our human reactions to loss: physical, psychological(cognitive or effective), spiritual, emotional, behavioral, and social. When I heard “sorry”, it made me feel that these reactions were heard or at least acknowledged and when I heard “an attitude of gratitude”, that acknowledgment felt erased. I was deeply missing my good friend and was sad. I also found myself acknowledging some of those secondary losses – some of the other ways that her physically moving away was going to affect me, such as, she is a social person and we would often go out together.
When a friend moves away, when we change jobs, when we change teams or schools, when children grow up and marry, when a pet dies, when someone we love dies, we experience loss. Each one of these life changes bring with them both sorrow and other grief reactions, including positive emotions. Laughter and smiling are also important emotions. When we let the sadness go for a while, it is less taxing and more rewarding, allowing for that moment to breathe. Sadness is a natural response to a loss in life. When the loss initially occurs, the pain of the loss is heightened. This too is normal. As we begin living with that loss and following this changed path in life, we blend that loss into our lives learning to carry it with us and gaining some control over it. We can even laugh and find joy in life again, appreciating what was lost, what is still left and even considering the possibilities for the future, which for me means going to visit my friend.
As for the Attitude of gratitude, it’s always there. The attitude of gratitude is what supports and sustains us throughout life. It can be difficult when the pain of the loss is early on and feels like it is overpowering us, to be grateful, yet gratitude does happen, just like experiencing expressions of joy and laughter. Think of it like this… the clouds may come and go in the sky, yet somewhere, behind those clouds, is a blue sky and sun. You may not see them right away, you may not feel them right away, yet you know that when the clouds part, even a little, you see a glimpse of sun or blue sky. Grief is like that. In our own sadness, it is helpful to allow ourselves moments of parting clouds and experience joy and laughter along with gratitude. When a heart is broken, acknowledging our blessings or 3 good things can create a sense of peace. Realize though, this may not be the immediate experience when the loss is new or fresh.
So, the next time someone says to you, I’m sad, consider re-framing your response. Allow that person to have their sadness. A response like, “If you need to talk, I have some time and would be happy to listen,” can be a more helpful response. Let them share how they feel, whatever their grief reaction may be. Most of all, don’t take their grief away, because for at least this moment in time, it is what they need, knowing that the attitude of gratitude will follow.
Bonanno, George A. The Other Side of Sadness. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010.
Meagher, David K. and David E. Balk, eds. Handbook of Thanatology. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013