The holiday season can be hard in times of grief. But for many people, noting the good things in life can be an important way to heal while honoring a loved one’s memory.
“Gratitude is a very powerful tool to nurture yourself, and Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to practice using that tool,” says Alex Zima, a grief counselor with HopeHealth.
Practicing gratitude actively grows your awareness of things that can benefit and support you. It’s even scientifically proven to help you cope with grief.
Gratitude is mindfulness
Expressing gratitude is one of many examples of mindfulness, the practice of moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. Practicing mindfulness in either a structured or informal way separates you from overwhelming thoughts or emotions, settling you back in the moment.
“We’re more aware of our body, more aware of our emotions. We’re also more empathic and sensitive to others around us,” Zima explains.
What’s more, feeling gratitude physically changes your brain and body chemistry for the better. Researchers have found:
- People who consciously focus on their blessings, versus hassles or complaints, may experience emotional and interpersonal benefits.
- Gratitude increases the brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters associated with happiness.
- Feeling grateful is linked to better sleep, stress relief and reduced depression, which can be a component of grief.
Things to be thankful for
If you are grieving, think to yourself: What is still strong? What supports you or brings you peace? It could be:
- Family and friends who love and care for you.
- Communities, such as your spiritual and religious affiliations, neighborhood, or the place you work or volunteer.
- Hobbies and interests, such as music.
- Memories of your loved one, both your own and others’. The people Zima counsels tell him they are thankful for the notes they receive from others expressing how much a family member meant to them.
Some people are grateful for grief counseling itself. “Just the fact that someone cares about them and provides these services with dedication and quality really means a lot to people who are grieving,” Zima says.
Sometimes grief is so dark it seems impossible to think of something good or positive. In those moments, Zima suggests remembering things in the past that brought you a sense of strength, peace and balance.
For long-lasting benefits, gratitude should be more than a one-time holiday exercise. Keep a gratitude journal and write it in every day. Send thank-you notes or emails to people you appreciate. Or call or visit someone to thank them for their kindness.
“People can always find something that they can be grateful for,” Zima says.
HopeHealth is a nonprofit provider of hospice, palliative care, home care, and dementia and Alzheimer’s support services, serving Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Our grief support services include counseling, support groups, remembrance events, and more.