ABOUT GRATITUDE

In my new book, Floating in the Deep End, I write about the importance of finding gratitude even in the choppy, unfriendly tides of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s. When I was running my support group, Beyond Alzheimer’s, if I mentioned gratitude I’d get one of several reactions from the group members: curiosity, shock, or rejection of the idea that gratitude could ever be part of their experience. Without a doubt, Alzheimer’s, or any type of dementia, is a painful and intensely challenging journey. But consider this — the person is not in pain, as they would be with certain types of cancer or other debilitating diseases; and as the disease progresses, they drift past the awareness of what they are losing, ending up in a land that appears to be fairly peaceful.

There is also this, which I thought about after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. With dementia, we are given time with our loved one — sometimes it seems like too much time. It can feel like a slow crawl, like death is hovering in the doorway, moving closer inch by inch or often not moving at all. We feel trapped in a waiting game. But in a violent shooting, which we have too many of, no one gets any time at all. I said to my support group after the Pulse shooting, “The people who were killed had their lives cut short in a second — no goodbyes, no reflections. And they died looking into the face of evil. Their loved ones didn’t get the time to say goodbye; they didn’t get the gentle roll of days and nights in which to think about memories and grief and the loved they shared. With Alzheimer’s people usually die between clean sheets, and if they’re lucky, with loved ones around them.”

We talk a lot about gratitude at this time of year. It is, after all, called Thanksgiving. But I wonder if we take time to appreciate that it’s often hard work to turn our minds and emotions to gratitude when so much is going wrong in the world. Covid, a democracy that’s careening toward a cliff, a planet that we are systematically killing. And the violence that seems to be a daily occurrence. How can we find something to be thankful for amidst all that darkness?

I think gratitude takes some muscle. It takes a determined focus to peer through the darkness, the chaos, the grief, and grab onto a ray of light. It takes faith to believe that no amount of darkness can fully extinguish light — that something always remains, waiting for us to find it. In the ten years of my father’s Alzheimer’s I clung to moments, often fleeting moments, but they were shiny gifts in an otherwise bleak landscape.

I told this story in Floating in the Deep End, how one day after a rainstorm my father and I sat outside and he gazed out at the city in the distance. “He did good work,” he said. I wasn’t sure who or what he meant, but I took a guess. “God?” I asked. He nodded. “Yes.” His eyes in that moment twinkled like they used to in a long ago time, a time that was lost to us. But for that instant he was there — the magical father to a child, the father who spun out stories and make-believe, feeding his young daughter’s imagination.

To find gratitude, we need to find moments. We need to be open to them, to catch them when they come and hold onto them tightly. It’s my wish for everyone this Thanksgiving, especially those in grief. There are families in Wisconsin whose tables will be missing loved ones because a man plowed his car through a crowd of people. I hope in their unimaginable grief that they also hold tightly to the love they shared, to the moments that death can’t steal and evil can’t extinguish. It isn’t easy to be thankful, but it’s the essence of healing.

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