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Finding Gratitude, Even in Grief?

Written by Jared Porter

Several years ago, on a Saturday, I went for a walk at Nashville’s scenic Percy Warner Park. There’s just something rejuvenating about trees, birds, squirrels, and trickling water. I don’t do it often enough, but that day, I made time for it.

Up the long, winding path I went, around a bend, trees overhead, nature all around me. Every step was taking me closer to Something. I didn’t know what, but for me, that’s part of the pleasure of walking: simply seeing where the path leads.

I noticed a trail I’d never walked before, like Robert Frost, I took it. It was more of a climb than the slight grade I left moments before, but some of the best views are at the end of a climb. So I went.

And I stopped.

There, at the top of the hill, I came upon a deer. I’ve always loved deer. I’d never been closer to one until that moment (no more than ten feet, I’d say). Its head jerked up. We locked eyes, stood silently, and stared at one another. It went back to eating, and a moment later, I heard something moving through the brush. Another deer came into view. Then another. And another.

I stood there for ten or fifteen minutes, captivated by what I saw. So beautiful. So peaceful. A perfect moment.

They moved on after a few more minutes, and I went on my way. It wasn’t until I reached a bridge that I met another walker. If someone had come up the trail behind me, they would’ve scared the deer away, but no one came.

It felt like a moment created just for me. A gift.

An Unexpected Detour

A year or two later, I went back. I set out to walk the same trail, to the top of the same hill, where I hoped I’d find more deer. Instead, a barricade stood in my way. “Closed for Repairs,” a sign said.

I was disappointed, but what could I do? There was still plenty of opportunity to walk, so I walked.

I didn’t see any deer that day, but I did come across something I hadn’t expected: a bench. One of those large, wooden park benches provided so walkers can stop and take a rest. That’s not so unusual, but next to this bench sat a large rock with a plaque bolted to it. It was a memorial plaque given in memory of someone who loved Percy Warner Park, and it contained a poem I’d never read before: “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by William Butler Yeats.

It’s not every day one encounters a poem in the woods, so I stopped, took a rest, and read it. It struck me as rather nice that someone provided the bench I was sitting on and a poem to enjoy. I paused for a few minutes and enjoyed the tranquility around me (so often lacking in the normal, day-to-day routine, which only seems to get faster).

Once again, time seemed to slow. I breathed.

That walk in the woods day taught me something I’ve carried with me ever since. I was disappointed that I couldn’t walk my favorite trail – but it was a beautiful day in its own way. That’s a powerful lesson: When things don’t go as we expect or prefer, the experiences we have instead can be life-enriching. We can even have gratitude for those experiences. It’s all in how you look at it. That day, I chose gratitude.

The Hardest Hill I’ve Ever Climbed

It’s hard to believe, but six months from now will mark ten years since I lost my mother. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. I always thought I’d see her live into her 80s. All of us did.

But my mother, Cathie Porter, died at the age of 57. From that day on, I no longer had a mother in my life. I knew my father would have to face an empty house. My grandmother lost her first-born child. I would never hear her voice again. She would never hold her granddaughter.

That’s a lot. I felt lost in the woods – in the dark – without a map, a compass, or a flashlight.

It was a pain that cut deeper than anything I’ve ever felt, a void at the center of my chest because a constant in my life that was gone. Still, as hard as it was, I found something that eased the pain. After she died, we spent time looking at pictures and telling stories from days gone by. I realized something: I was fortunate that she was in my life for thirty years. That she was my mother. That I was her son.

I thought of how fiercely she loved us, all that she’d given us out of love, the memories she gave me.

I felt gratitude.

The day of her funeral, it dawned on me: It was that day in the park all over again. Things didn’t go as I expected, and we wished we’d had her longer – but we had so many reasons to be thankful.

It’s counterintuitive, I know. How could I be thankful when my mother died? After that kind of loss? All I know is that holding tight to the memories I had, the love she showed me, made me feel fortunate. Thinking about what I did have, not what I didn’t have, helped a great deal.

Grief made me feel empty. Gratitude filled me up.

What Kept Me Going

I’m not a professionally trained grief counselor, but as someone who has grieved, I can tell you that having gratitude helped me. I’ve also found that it’s helped me not only in times of grief, but in other times of life when I felt down.

Remembering the time I had with Mom gave me strength and comfort. It shifted my focus. Loss left me feeling cold. Giving thanks brought me warmth.

Gratitude was what I held onto, something that helped me keep going. It was a salve that eased the pain. For me, it was where healing began.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t grieve. We should. We grieve because we love. And love is a reason in itself to be thankful.

It may not be easy to feel gratitude in tough times, and it doesn’t solve the problem or make it go away. Sometimes, you have to “fake it until you make it,” which means giving it a try and seeing what happens. You don’t have to start from a place of gratitude in order to “get there,” to feel it. Making a list of what you’re thankful for, especially in a tough time, can change your mood and mindset for the better. You might be surprised just how much. (I speak from experience.)

Reasons To Be Thankful

Looking back, I’m glad for the deer I encountered at the park that day, years ago. I wasn’t able to climb that hilltop again the next time, but I was glad for what the day did bring: respite in the form of a park bench and a poem.

Ten years later, I wish my mother were still alive, but I still have many reasons to be thankful. I’m grateful for the time we had. I’ll never forget her smile when I brought her flowers the day she came home for hospice care. I laugh over Mom’s old sayings that still come out of my mouth. I cherish the moments that I know made her proud. I’m glad for the Facebook memories that pop up now and then. I love that my daughter, who never met her grandmother, calls her “my Nana.”

And I’m grateful.

I found my way, and you can, too.

Jared Porter

Jared Porter is a Board member with Insight Counseling Centers.

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