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Are Grief and Gratitude Mutually Exclusive?

How we can feel two things that seem diametrically opposed?

Key points

  • It's possible to feel two things that seem contradictory at the same time.
  • Grief is an enduring expression of love. It changes but never goes away.
  • The challenge is to integrate grief so that joy and gratitude can live alongside it.

Here’s what we know: We’re supposed to be grateful. Research shows that gratitude can enhance both our physical and emotional health, improve our self-esteem, and make us happier overall. And if that’s not enough, it can help us sleep better, too.

How Can We Be Grateful When We're Grieving?

Yet how can we give thanks for what we have when we’re in anguish about who we don’t have?

The holidays, of course, can be particularly difficult for grievers. And Thanksgiving, the grand marshal of the holiday season, may feel especially cruel. We hold our breath, hoping that nobody will suggest we go around the table taking turns saying what we’re thankful for. We avert our eyes from the chair where our person used to sit. We avoid pumpkin pie altogether because if we can’t have our mother’s, we’d prefer to have none at all.

Being With Others Is Complicated

There are people who expect us to be consumed by our loss, which can make us feel like we’re betraying our grief when we’re enjoying ourselves. Others expect us to have “moved on,” as if there’s an expiration date for our sorrow.

The holidays, like so much else in the world of grief, can feel like a minefield. Yet it’s possible to be grateful and grief-full at the same time.

If we start with the premise that grief is an enduring expression of the love we carry for our people, then we know we’ll be grieving forever. I will never stop grieving the loss of my daughter, my sisters, or my parents. I won’t “get over” my grief, nor would I want to. The work is finding a way to let joy and laughter and yes, gratitude, live alongside the grief.

It’s possible to feel two things that are seemingly in direct opposition at the same time. Whoever invented the word “bittersweet” knew that.

When my 5-year-old daughter was diagnosed with an ultra-rare degenerative disease, I immersed myself in research. I spent my free time looking for experimental drugs, clinical trials, glimmers of hope. When her disease stole her ability to walk, talk, and breathe without a ventilator at age 9, I learned how to change a trach tube and use a food pump and manage a revolving team of nurses.

Meanwhile, my daughter learned to find joy even while so much was taken from her. She turned her saline bullets, meant to loosen plugs in her trach, into mini-water guns to spray at her brothers. She danced every day, even when all she could move were her shoulders. After a while, she taught me how to find joy, too, and we learned that we could be happy even when we were decimated.

We discovered we could simultaneously experience two emotions that ought to have been mutually exclusive.

Grievers Can Indeed Feel Grateful

I’m grateful that my daughter was mine, that my husband and I were exactly where we were on the adoption agency’s spreadsheet. One line higher or lower, and we might have been matched with a different child. I’m grateful for my other kids, too, and for my husband and that my family lets me eat the entire crust of the pecan pie, because it’s the only part I like.

I know that grief and gratitude will both show up on Thanksgiving. Both have a seat at my table.

Yet grievers shouldn’t be expected to feel grateful, or feel any other particular thing for that matter. There’s no rulebook for grief. If there were, it would have a total of one rule: Feel what you feel. And if what you feel is grateful and happy and angry and sad, there’s room for all of it.