Three years ago this month, I lost my first grandparent, and the timing couldn't have been much worse. After weeks of trying to recover from traumatic surgery, he died just days before my cousin - his youngest grandchild - became a bar mitzvah. So these things always seem to go; even just last week, the observance of my papa's yahrtzeit, I attended a wedding in which the groom had lost his grandfather days before.
As humans do, we look for explanations, reasons and ways to make sense of tragedy and grief. We often refuse to believe these are not random occurrences, but meaningful coincidences. I'm not sure to what extent our loved ones invite or control death until they are ready, but I do believe that in any seemingly unlikely or unbelievable situation, there is meaning to be found.
I found my meaning lying awake in my old bed at my parents' house a few days after his death. As our minds so often do while trying to fall asleep, I started to process my experiences and feelings. Given that I had spent the last couple days distracted by my cousin's bar mitzvah celebrations, I had avoided any lingering sadness, and now it started to creep back in. I began to think about everything that had disappeared from my life now that my papa was gone: how he looked, how he felt, his personality - all things that for my entire life had been realities, suddenly were now memories. I wouldn't get to experience them again. I believe that realization, specifically, is at the core of grief, and the mourning process is about transitioning from lamenting and wrestling with the loss of a loved one to learning to treasure their memory instead.
So, as I tossed and turned, I wanted desperately to change my perspective. How could I begin to overcome my sadness and feel at peace with the loss of someone who at every stage of my life had been there to support me and celebrate all of my accomplishments?
I tried the obvious trick at first. At least I had all four of my grandparents for the first 24 years of my life, I thought. I'm only so sad because I've been so lucky... I am really, really lucky. Eventually, rather than feeling lucky, I began to feel grateful. I was grateful for the time we spent together. I was grateful for all he taught me. I was so grateful that I could remember what he looked like, what it felt like when he put one of his enormous hands on my back. With gratitude - to my family, to God, to the randomness of life, it did not matter - I began to feel better.
Gratitude, it became clear to me, was one of the most powerful forces in the universe.
Being grateful is a popular topic this time of year. My colleague Cindy, for example, just wrote a great piece on how essentially Jewish gratitude is, how it makes our lives better, and how we could all be more mindful in order to see everything for which there is to be thankful. Thanksgiving provides us a solid annual reminder of what we're thankful for in our lives, but anyone who understands not only the yearlong but also the lifelong importance of giving thanks knows that sitting around a table sharing one thing we're grateful for between gluttonous forkfuls doesn't cut it.
A couple years back, my friend Rabbi Lisa Bellows shared a Shabbat sermon on gratitude that I completely forgot except for one detail: Before going to sleep each night, her children would say their "gratefuls" - whatever they were thankful for that day. I thought what an impressive practice that was. For a child, this could be just as a soothing as a lullaby or bedtime story and provides something more tangible than simply offering up private, hopeful prayers. In fact, vocalizing gratitude is its own kind of prayer (aren't all the prayers just different ways of saying "thank you, God"?) and doing so at the most reflective moment of our day instills the notion that a day is not complete until we've been mindful and appreciative of the good that came from it.
So, with no shame, I began this practice in my own life. A year or so ago, I shared with my girlfriend my feelings and "theory" about the power of gratitude after she'd had a rough day, and we decided to each say three things we were feeling grateful for that day. The practice has since endured, not every night, but many, usually because she reminds me. Coming up with three is not always easy, especially after a hard day, but there are always at least three to be found. And, in addition to being therapeutic, they offer us tremendous insight into what the other person is thinking about, feeling and processing.
To revert to the mainstream annual tradition of giving thanks at the end of November, I am grateful that over the last few years I've discovered the power of practicing gratitude. Since my papa died, every time life has thrown me a challenge, gratitude helps me keep a healthy perspective, to be mindful of all the blessings life brings even in a world where evil and tragedy persist. I realized that we cannot live our lives the way we owe it to ourselves to live if we spend too much time ruminating over pain, hardship and the troubles of our world and don't stop to appreciate the good that endures. And turning something painful into something good - that I can now look back at that difficult time as not just the death of a loved one, but as the beginning of my life as a more grateful, better, human being - that's something for which I could never be grateful enough.