Have You Experienced a Life-Changing Event? Be Grateful

How unexpected life events can lead to a greater sense of gratitude.

Posted Nov 08, 2020

Simon Migaj/Pexels
Source: Simon Migaj/Pexels

Have you experienced a life event that you didn’t expect at all? Perhaps a failed relationship, unexpected loss of a loved one, or traumatic illness? Almost all of us may have expected things to work out a certain way, and then those plans don’t. We may still be suffering from the consequences, or we may pivot and be grateful.  

Gratitude is an attitude that is in our control. While it may not come naturally to all, expressing gratitude can become a habit we practice and fuel what is called post-traumatic growth (PTG), or personal growth in us. Finding the little things in life to be grateful for can heal our wounds, transform the experience of suffering into joy, and consistently put us on the path to life success. 

In a study of spinal cord injury (SCI) survivors, both men and women, the majority of survivors went on the be especially grateful for everyday life after their life-altering injury. Further, survivors were grateful for family support, grateful for new opportunities, grateful for a positive sense of self, and grateful to God. More specifically, SCI survivors were grateful, for example, for "reading daily newspapers early in the morning," "sitting outside in the evening listening to and seeing the birds," and being able to play with their grandchildren.

In terms of their view of self, SCI survivors felt that they became "actually better" people following their life-changing experience. When facing a major unpleasant event in our lives, this finding translates into the opportunities given to all of us to become "better" people. Better, in part, can mean more resilient and appreciative as opposed to "materialistic," "insensitive" or "superficial." Personal growth, or PTG, is being able to discover hidden strengths and capacities as a result of struggling and coping with various life challenges. 

SCI survivors also expressed gratitude for family support. More specifically, their experiences led them to recognize the “significance of their family and become more grateful for the presence and support of their family.”

Not only do SCI survivors demonstrate gratitude in aspects of their lives. Others who’ve experienced heart disease or cancer also show increased gratitude for life and what they already have. Indeed, life-changing events fuel a noteworthy growth in people that increases one of the healthiest emotions in people, namely gratitude. 

What if you’ve experienced a failed relationship or unexpected loss of a loved one? Will you continue to experience suffering and pain? Researchers have, in simple terms, identified that one of the five themes of PTG, or growth after trauma, is an appreciation of life. Growth and appreciation, in turn, following a life-altering event or trauma seem to naturally ensue and can be symbiotic. You will get there.

What can you do to pivot from changes in your life and reap the benefits of gratitude (rather than continue to suffer)? Engage in a gratitude practice. Try and adopt a few of the habits below:

  • Use your social media platforms, or alternatively a journal, to list what you are grateful for weekly. Note the little things like having soap to wash your hands or having a heated home, if you are so fortunate. Try to keep this up for over six weeks.
  • Say thank you in person to someone you care about and who supports you.
  • Say thank you to yourself before you go to bed, recounting three things you appreciate about yourself. Include things like a caring nature, personal grit and strength, or a sense of humor.
  • Reflect on how you have grown as a person, and express gratitude for two to three of those things. Include things like "becoming stronger" or "becoming wiser."

References

Chun, S. and Lee, Y. (2013). “I am just thankful”: the experience of gratitude following traumatic spinal cord injury. Disability & Rehabilitation, 35(1): 11–19.