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Gratitude, the Sixth Stage of Grief

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1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance
6. Gratitude

I remember the exact moment when I finally understood acceptance, the fifth stage of grief. It was in the middle of the night years after the fact, and I woke myself up crying, again. Previously, I thought acceptance meant accepting that the horrible thing had happened, that it was a real event. However on that night, I understood the true meaning of acceptance: I accepted that this sadness, my grief, would forever be a part of my identity and my life. I understood that a tiny piece of me would forever be in mourning, and that this pain and sadness would always be a part of me. It would dim, for certain, but it would never go away.

My grief certainly didn’t make me who I was; however I had no identity that did not include a tiny piece of the sadness found within. It was only after accepting that grief would be with me forever that I could move on and fully embrace the sixth stage of grief: gratitude. No matter what loss you have suffered, what negative things someone has done to you, or what sadness you have created for yourself, your struggles become part of you – and you can find a way to be grateful for them.

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As anyone who has experienced profound grief knows for certain: time doesn’t heal all wounds. Ask any senior citizen if you don’t believe it. The pain dims, the wound grows smaller, and you learn how to handle your grief. However seeking to fully eliminate this sadness from your life is a losing proposition; instead, you must look for the positives that shine from the rubble of your grief.

While self-help books and feel-better gurus tout the quest for “closure,” seeking to seal up a sad situation like an envelope is a bit like searching for perfection. Perhaps in fairy tales these things exist, but life is messy and grief rarely leaves behind a clean trail and a door that can be closed. Many people looking for closure, for an end to their suffering, fail to realize that closure doesn’t exist. The time you spend trying to make your pain disappear completely is time better spent trying to focus on the positive things the pain has brought into your life.

Experiencing profound grief makes you stronger. It makes you less sensitive to the daily trials of life. It makes you wiser and more able to deal with the next pile of suffering sent your way. In short, it makes you human. Through grief, we can finally understand the suffering of others and comprehend the depths of love, including its dark and dangerous side.

No one can rush the stages of grief. If you are struggling to make sense of your loss, to comprehend your grief and contain it somehow, please know that time does make sadness more bearable. Whether you are pissed off at your friend who killed himself last year, depressed about the death of a dog, or slowly accepting that your father isn’t ever coming back, time will help you move beyond your current pain. But searching for closure, for a time when the pain will stop completely, can be a frustrating endeavor that is ultimately doomed to fail. Instead, search for gratitude. To truly offset the pain and disaster of grief, you must learn to be grateful for the thing you have lost, whether that is a person, a relationship, a job, an ideal or a pet. You are not alone in your struggles; you are a human being for them. Find gratitude, and you will find relief.

Image: Neal.

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