"He had a heart attack? HE had a HEART ATTACK? He just ran a marathon last month! We thought the chest pain was indigestion! What does this mean? Does this mean he could have another heart attack at ANY TIME?!"
"Cirrhosis?! I came in to the hospital because of shortness of breath, which I don't even have now since you drained the fluid from my belly. How can my liver be failing?! What tests did you do? I want a second opinion!"
"I prayed so hard, and I had a prayer circle praying with me, but the cancer is not responding to the cancer therapy. I know I'm supposed to stay positive, but sometimes I wonder how much time I have left. I wonder how my kids will do once I'm gone."
Whether we are first reconciling with serious news about our (or our loved one's) medical condition or struggling to live day-to-day with declining health, it can be hard to feel gratitude about any aspect of our lives. As one patient bitterly commented, "I won't get to be a part of my children's stories. What's there to be grateful for? My husband retired last year so we could start living out our plans, and then I got diagnosed with cancer! We didn't get to do anything we wanted."
So why should we bother trying to find something to feel grateful for in these situations? What are potential benefits of experiencing thankfulness?
- Feeling gratitude can help you focus on what you do have and what you can do and potentially less so on what you used to have and what you could do. Therefore, it could help you feel more capable and confident than you otherwise would. "Well, my aide came and helped me wash my hair this morning. I feel glorious."
- Feeling gratitude can increase your resiliency, protecting you from feeling as lost or as overwhelmed as you may otherwise feel during particularly tough or terrible times. "I am thankful for my dog. She saved my life, back when my daughter was dying and after that. She saved my life, and I am thankful to her."
- Feeling gratitude can help you find humor during or make lighter a bleak time, potentially helping you to perseverate less on bad news and/or keep pervasive depressed mood at bay. "I'm grateful my family is here. I told them Jesus and I are tight; my name's on his fridge."
- Because actively seeking something to feel grateful for during rough times can require thinking outside the box and viewing situations from various perspectives, these actions can increase your ability to be open minded, both towards your own abilities (making you more willing to adapt to creative solutions if your health starts to limit physical abilities, thus preserving your sense of control or independence) and to other people (increasing your ability to find a connection or empathize with others, whether it be other patients, your family caregivers, or even your closest healthcare provider). "How would I rate my well-being? I guess a ten out of ten. My daughter got me this walker with a seat so now I can vacuum. I vacuum that patch over there holding onto my walker, then I sit on the seat and catch my breath. After a few minutes, I vacuum the patch next to it, and then I sit on the seat. It takes a while, but I get it done."
- In line with above, the practice of being more open minded to find gratitude can better prepare you to reframe goals of care and find hope, again and again, in ever changing health situations. "I have a wonderful family, and everyone has been so supportive. When Dr. M. said cancer therapy would probably hurt more than help at this point, I said, 'Ok then, I'm not surprised really. I was hoping to hear something else, but I'm not surprised. I guess...no more having to wake up early to make doctors' visits. More visits from family!"
- Feeling gratitude can increase your overall sense of well being, increasing your emotional and/or spiritual health. “I have a lot to be thankful for. Today? I’m thankful I’m above ground and not in the hospital.”
- Feeling gratitude can help you find meaning in a life significantly altered by new or worsening health conditions that are now impacting many aspects of your life, including your sense of identity. “Sometimes it’s hard. I know it sounds cliché, but it does feel like an honor to be caring for him. I’ve learned so much, grown so much. I’ve had to be more courageous, advocating for him, than I normally would be. Since he needs a caregiver, I’m glad I’m the one doing it.”
So what are suggestions on how we can find gratitude during times when we are really struggling?
1. Take the time to pause and deliberately find a person, activity, physical condition, state of being, state of mind, weather condition, location – anything – for which you can feel gratitude and sit for a moment with that gratitude. This is also called “mindfulness.”
2. For some, taking the above step further and expressing this gratitude “completes” the experience of feeling gratitude. Methods of expressing gratitude may include articulating the sentiment out loud to oneself or to another person or writing it down for example in a daily journal.
3. Remind yourself that you can feel thankful for “small” items or items over which you did not play an active role in achieving. Examples may be a neighbor dropping off an extra bag of oranges or appreciating unexpected snowflakes on Mother’s Day.
4. Remind yourself that you may have to reframe a situation to look for positive (intended or unintended) effects. You may have to think creatively, outside the box, or from another’s perspective to find something for which you could feel grateful.
5. Practice regularly any of the above steps that work best for you. Hopefully, in time, regular practice of seeking out things for which to feel grateful will result in future skill and ease in doing so, even alongside fear, anger, or sorrow.
“The only positive thing that came out of this is that now Dad is willing to go to the doctor and get his tests done. He said if a heart attack could happen to Gavin, then who knows what could happen with him.”
“I appreciate the days right after they drain the fluid from my belly. I can move around. I can breathe.”
“I had a good life with no regrets. Not everyone can say that. I wish I had more time with my kids…I’m glad I have this time to tell them that I love them and that I’m very proud of them. I make it a point to tell them every day now.”
Finding a way to make the most of living day-to-day with a serious diagnosis, complex illness, changing health, or unexpected prognosis can be challenging. I hope these suggestions on actively finding and sitting with moments of gratitude will make it a little bit easier.