I’m a big believer in thankfulness. It’s important and beneficial to count your blessings: a thankful attitude can help you develop emotional resilience and enjoy a more positive outlook on life.
But what about those times when you’re trying your best to have a thankful heart, yet you still feel awful? What do you do then?
From my experience, I can tell you what happens next: you feel guilty! You start to question yourself. Why am I still feeling awful? I have so much to be thankful for! Confusion enters stage right, frustration enters stage left, and you feel like the unsuspecting fool in a farce. (Picture pie in your face — or a plank or a rake!)
If your attempts at reaching up in thankfulness sometimes end in a baffling nose-dive, I have three things to tell you up front: (1) you are not going crazy, (2) you are not defective, and (3) you are not alone.
Let me tell you about a time when I tried really hard to be thankful yet still felt grim. It happened when we were away on holidays earlier this year — but I’ll fill you in on the background first. I hope my story will encourage you. It might even help you understand what’s going on in your own mind when a grateful heart isn’t the cure-all you were hoping it would be.
Our holiday apartment (the background story)
Next week we’re going up the coast for a few days. My parents-in-law own a holiday apartment up north that we’ve used for mini-breaks over the past eight years.
It’s funny going to the same place year after year. For me, it acts like height measurements penciled onto a door frame: Day by day you don’t notice a child getting taller, but you’re suddenly stunned by how much they’ve changed when you look down the frame. (A 10-year-old can grow up to 11in/28cm in one year!) When I look back at our holidays up the coast, the changes in our family seem stark — sometimes uncomfortably stark — to me.
We stayed in the holiday apartment when our son was a baby. He was an active little guy, speed-crawling all over the place and pulling at the power cables (hotel apartments are not babyproof!). We spent most of our time outdoors, enjoying the sunshine. I remember standing on the expansive white-sanded beach, looking towards the horizon, imagining how our son and his future siblings might want to pass their time here. Would we have a girl or a boy next?
We stayed there when our son was a toddler. He could now run about, and his obsession with power cables had thankfully passed! We spent many happy hours outdoors as a family. The little guy busied himself by filling plastic beach buckets with water, sand and leaves then stirring the “potion”. He also enjoyed broom-brooming his matchbox cars on carefully-constructed racing tracks in the sand.
It was during this trip that I found out I was pregnant with our second child. We took photos of the piddle-stick to cheekily announce the happy news to our extended family back home.
We stayed there again in the final trimester of my second pregnancy, when my belly was swollen enough to make me waddle. We had a beautiful time, enjoying one last holiday as a family of three before our little girl joined us. By then our son was talking in sentences and becoming more agile. He loved zooming around on his balance bike and playing on the playground equipment: swinging, climbing, balancing, tumbling and getting back up again (after a show-stopping cry and a brief cuddle).
Three weeks later I was hospitalised with a potentially life-threatening viral infection. Two weeks after that our daughter was born. Five years later I’m still mostly housebound with a chronic neuroimmune condition, called ME/CFS, that was triggered by the virus.
Needless to say, we haven’t made it up the coast to our in-laws’ holiday apartment many times in the past five years! We’ve spent much of our daily lives in survival mode. We did attempt a family holiday 12 months ago, but I spent much of my time weak, stiff and achey in bed. The holiday wasn’t at all restful for my burnt-out husband, who was caring for all three of us while we were away and who returned home absolutely exhausted. (At least the kids had a ball! We’re both very thankful for that.)
When my husband’s parents realised how burnt out he was, they made us an offer that was hard to refuse: “How about we come to the holiday apartment with you. We can care for the kids while you get a proper rest. You can stay in a separate apartment, that way it’ll be a relaxing holiday for you.” We said an enthusiastic “yes” of course! That was nine months ago.
Our idyllic holiday (when I tried really hard to be thankful)
What an amazing blessing this respite holiday was! We were no doubt the envy of other young families at the resort: my husband and I had the luxury of waltzing in for brief visits with our kids before returning to our own activities while the grandparents watched them.
It was a lovely opportunity for us to revive our weary spirits, and we were both truly grateful for my parents-in-law’s kindness! The weather was warm and sunny. The hotel room was pleasant and there was even a lovely, enormous spa bath for me to relax in.
Despite all this, I spent much of that week feeling gloomy, and I couldn’t work out why. I didn’t feel depressed — I wasn’t lacking in drive; I wasn’t filled with self-loathing. I had activities to occupy my mind, which brought me a sense of purpose and joy within the confines of our lovely spacious, sunlight-drenched suite. I was able to venture outdoors for short periods before returning to bed, and I soaked in every ray of sun I could while out.
I just couldn’t kick this feeling of heaviness. It wouldn’t go away, no matter how many things I found to be thankful for. How confusing!
What’s wrong with me?!
After returning home, I booked a session with my counsellor to unravel this knot of conflicting emotions. I told her what a lovely time we’d had. I expressed how wonderful it felt to see my husband with a fully charged emotional battery for the first time in years.
Then I described the sense of loss that I just couldn’t seem to kick: it felt like I was grieving.
“But I thought I’d finished grieving!” I spat out the words, exasperated. “Why is it hitting me now?!”
She responded with a lesson on grief: “Grief is not linear; it’s cyclical.” Here are two graphics I’ve created to show what she taught me.
And here’s my non-scientific paraphrase:
After our initial loss (in the middle of the circle) we’re consumed by grief. It feels like we’re drowning in sadness. Looking back hurts; looking to the future is terrifying, and we feel trapped in a messy, dim bubble of pain.
Over time, we emerge from our bubble. We feel wobbly and shaken but we make our first tentative steps towards our “new” life without the person/thing we’ve lost.
Eventually, we start to have more clear days than drowning days. Life goes on. It feels like maybe we’re finally “getting over it” — phew! The messy, dim bubble of grief fades for a while.
But then it comes back again, usually when something triggers it, e.g. a special place or memory.
Moving out from the big blob of loss in the middle, there are layers of time — imagine a spiral winding outward from the centre. Over the years:
- the gaps between the grief blobs may get bigger (thank God!), and
- each grief blob will generally get smaller.
In other words, the grief attacks won’t feel as overwhelming as they did in that first year or two.
See those tiny dots on the outer rings? Grief is still cropping up from time to time. We may get little pangs of grief many, many years after our loss, and that’s totally normal. It doesn’t mean we’ve failed to grieve “properly”!
It finally made sense!
So, the sadness and exasperation I was feeling during our respite holiday? They were an expression of grief: Because we’d been to the same holiday apartment year after year, before I got sick, I was suddenly confronted by the decline in my health. The activities we used to do together were no longer possible for me, and that was sad!
The daydreaming I’d done, while gazing at the horizon on the white-sanded beach six years earlier, came back to bite me. I’d imagined how our future might look, and it was lovely. Now our new reality was slapping me in the face, and it hurt!
It hurt to be in bed while the kids played outdoors with their grandparents. It hurt to spend sunny days indoors when I’d much prefer to be going on adventures like we’d done on our previous holidays — day trips to nearby sleepy coastal towns and cultural attractions.
With this new understanding of my holiday gloominess, I was freed from the confusion and guilt which had nagged at me: Which parent in their right mind would be feeling sad when they’re staying in a luxury suite, the weather is warm, the sun is shining and their kids are being cared for by someone else?
Sounds like a fantasy! But for me it was far from ideal. It wasn’t the life I’d dreamed of. It wasn’t how our family was meant to end up.
Our next holiday
In a few days we’ll be up the coast again. My in-laws are already there, ready to take on carer responsibilities while my husband and I get some rest.
I’m aware that much of my time will be spent indoors (when I’d rather be outdoors). I’m aware that I may feel defensive when other parents of young kids watch me walk away from the poolside, leaving our little ones with the grandparents. (No, they have no idea what our life is like, but that’s OK — their thoughts and feelings are not my responsibility! I don’t need to feel guilty about resting, and I don’t need to explain myself.)
This time I’m prepared: I know that a new blob of grief might cast its shadow over me, so I won’t be as alarmed and confused when it does. But this time it will be a little less intense — the blob will be smaller. And the time after that, it will be smaller again. Someday it will just be a tiny dot.
Postscript — How did the holiday go?
We got back home a few hours ago. What a wonderful time we had! As expected, the grief blob did touch me a few times but it was much less severe than last time — I was pleasantly surprised, actually!
Yes, it was sad that I couldn’t spend more time being active; but I did enjoy the treat of lying in our huge king-size bed for most of each day, with a gentle breeze flowing in from the balcony, reminding me of the outdoors.
I took a few short walks to the beach, and I soaked up every second of it: the invigorating ocean wind blowing against my cheeks and the springtime sun shining on my arms — warm but not stinging.
I find the ocean so rough and unpredictable and dangerous but strangely soothing all at once. Gazing, mesmerised, at the pounding waves, I felt a sense of peace trickle down into my parched heart. And I thanked God for sustaining me through what has been an intensely difficult five years.
We ate out once each day (I managed OK because I had plenty of bed rest before and after each time). I enjoyed a couple of long soaks in the huge bathtub. And I enjoyed some brief-but-no-less-special moments with my husband, my kids and my in-laws.
Sure, our new reality is vastly different from the family times I envisaged eight years ago, but we’re making the most of what we still do have. We’re creating new memories.
Here are some of them!
How can I help you grow?
Below are some resources to equip you and support you in your own cycles of grief.
Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over is an article written by a clinical psychologist. She explains how the grief process is so often misunderstood and gives some helpful advice.
When Chronic Pain & Illness Take Everything Away: How to Mourn Our Losses is written by Esther Smith, who blogs at Life in Slow Motion. I found this to be a super helpful guide book. Esther talks about her own experiences, then gives practical guidance at the end of each chapter. I think this book would be a helpful guide to anyone who’s experiencing grief, no matter what the source. The e-book costs around $4.
The Scars That Have Shaped Me is by Vaneetha Rendall Risner who blogs at Dance In The Rain. I love pretty much every single thing Vaneetha writes! She is raw, authentic and gospel-focused in a way that I’ve found tremendously helpful over the past few years.
(I’m not affiliated with these links in any way — Esther and Vaneetha haven’t asked me to promote their books; I just found them so helpful that I couldn’t not mention them here!)
If you don’t have a counsellor, I highly recommend that you find one to discuss these ideas with. My blog posts and resources are here to support you, but they can’t replace face-to-face help that’s tailored to your specific situation.
Search for a Christian counsellor in your area on this site (USA and Canada) or here (Australia). If you’re in another country, try a Google search, e.g. Christian counsellors South Africa. (NB If you already see a counsellor whom you’re happy with, don’t feel you need to leave them in search of a Christian one!)
Are we Facebook friends yet? Add me as a friend if you’d like to get to know me better. You might get to know some of my online friends, too, by interacting with us in the comments! I post updates most days, ranging from silly stuff to encouraging spiritual stuff.
I’m on Instagram too: Follow me here. I post several times a week: mostly brief devotional type posts but also some personal photos.
Statistics re children’s typical annual growth found here. Interesting!