The stages of grief, gratitude and hope for the future

Losing the family that I was planning on spending the rest of my life with has been a painful experience. It has filled me with a tremendous sense of loss.

This sense of loss, I have learned, is both natural and healthy when one experiences such pain.

I have also learned that in order to live life “all in”, not only do we need to transform our relationship to fear (to step outside the boat), but we also need to transform our relationship to pain (when we find ourselves in the water).

Understanding how the grieving process works has helped me to get through this experience in a much more empowered way than I know I would have handled it in the past. As part of living life outside the boat, I have come to embrace the challenges, failures and pain that are a part of living life. Hopefully what I share will help encourage you if you are also struggling, or if you are looking for the courage to take a potentially painful risk. (Do it, the reward is worth it)

I’m thankful that a while ago I learned about the five stages of grief. So, when this experience happened, I knew what to expect and tried not to skip ahead to just “being positive” about it (thus suppressing any honest emotions that may have seemed unpleasant). Instead, I embraced each step along the way:

  1. Denial – There wasn’t much of this. I knew that it was what it was, and it’s not worth the frustration of arguing with reality.
  2. Anger – This was a breakthrough for me. Being of a reflective anger style (more on that later) I usually don’t give voice to what I’m feeling in that department. This time, I embraced it and found several healthy ways to give it a voice. (Maybe one or two that weren’t as healthy, but I blame it on the alcohol)
  3. Bargaining – This is an interesting one, and though the finality of our decision didn’t much room for it, the desire to remain friends (and close with the boys I grew to love), at times morphs into a yearning to evaluate unexplored option.
  4. Sadness – “Hello darkness my old friend…” this is where I found myself while on the beach in Costa Rica… and the real setting for our story today.
  5. Acceptance – To be discovered…?
Being in paradise has far more to do with the state of your mind than it does the state of your environment.

Being in paradise has far more to do with the state of your mind than it does the state of your environment.

So, here I was on the beach in paradise and I was really sad… I found truth in the statement by John Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

I was in the middle of paradise, but my mind was in hell. I kept playing thoughts over and over again in my mind:

  • What went wrong?
  • What could I have done better? Why didn’t I do ABC?
  • Why did she do XYZ?
  • How could it have turned out differently?

With each thought, my frustration, pain and sadness increased…. Einstein was right when he said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I was torturing myself with unproductive thoughts, and it was a downward spiral…. until I had a simple (but important) epiphany:

Thinking about the past doesn’t change it.

“Thinking about the past doesn’t change it.”

No amount of rehearsing what might have been was going to change anything. So I decided that instead of thinking about the past the way I was, I needed to change the way that I was feeling about the past.

This is where I finally found step 5: Acceptance. Every time I thought of the past, I stopped thinking about what might have been and took a moment to feel gratitude for what was. Very simple, but sincerely, I said:

Thank you for the happy memories.

Every time I thought of how much I loved running on the mountain with her, massaging her feet at night, cleaning up the kitchen after she made dinner. Every time I missed teaching the boys, jumping on the trampoline with them, picking them up from school, driving them to jiu-jitsu, reading with them and hearing them say “we have the best family ever”. Every time I had these thoughts (that previously would have filled me with sadness and frustration), I replaced it with the thought: “thank you for the happy memories.

Each time I sincerely expressed gratitude for the good times we shared, I felt a little bit happier. I stopped feeling sorry for what I had lost, and starting feeling grateful for what I had experienced. The happiness swelled with each thought. Again and again I revisited each thought, each cherished experience we shared, and said: “thank you for the happy memories.

Within minutes, pure joy filled my heart. The sadness dissipated and gratitude permeated. A smile crossed my face, from ear to ear, and I became a new person. Gratitude, had not only transformed how I was looking at the past, it transformed how I was feeling in the moment… and as that joy swelled, gratitude transformed how I looked at the future.

Gratitude grew into a feeling of hope… a hope that if I could have had it so good then, that I would be able to have that again in the future.

And that somehow, magically, it could be even better.