I spoke to my students yesterday about the importance of gratitude, whether or not you celebrate Thanksgiving. When things are not going well, it helps to think of even the tiniest thing for which to be grateful- be it a favorite song or snack. Once you begin to think of those little things, you may very well find that there are many of them. I could see that what I was saying resonated with many of them, and I could see them perk up when I said that I have done that myself. Indeed, feeling and expressing gratitude has been a super power that’s helped me throughout caregiving and grief and emotions that have turned me Inside Out. What more appropriate time to summon gratitude than Thanksgiving?!
Grief is filled with ebbs and flows of emotion, and at times, I give into the loneliness and memories of the ugliness of cancer and ALS, the messiness- emotional and physical- of caregiving, as well as the profound sadness over my losses (A little more than two years have passed since Ben left this world, and it’s almost four years since I lost my dad.) The sadness is magnified around a holiday like Thanksgiving, which reinforces that I’ve lost the family to which I was so close. Thoughts also resurface of Thanksgivings spent in the hospital with my dad or at home with Ben, when he was understandably down about so many things regarding his ALS, including not wanting to eat pureed versions of traditional holiday dishes. And yet, although it was easy to lose sight of it at the time, Ben and I did have things for which to be thankful. Being able to feel gratitude was indeed a super power, because it gave us perspective that allowed us to always see the love that was there. I have been feeling down and alone lately, and reminding myself of the many things for which I’m grateful continues to warm my heart, even if those memories come with tears.
“The more you are in a state of gratitude, the more you will attract things to be grateful for,”
said Walt Disney. It certainly feels good to conjure gratitude, though when you’re facing a terminal illness like ALS or cancer, it seems almost disingenuous to think that you can put yourself into a state of gratitude and that you can attract things to be grateful for. Ben lived in a state of denial about the progression of the disease, and I lived in a state of bracing myself for what might come our way, more relieved than grateful for any day without crises. As time has passed, I’ve learned that “being in a state of gratitude” is not to naively play the Glad Game and turn situations around like Pollyana did. It is not to ignore the bad experiences or diminish their impact, but, instead, to draw upon the very important power of perspective. I have a good cry when I need to, or when something triggers it, but I can also shift my focus to aspects of these experiences that compel gratitude. Once I’m thinking about things to be grateful for, I realize that I have quite a nice list. That’s a good and humbling feeling.
At the top of my list is gratitude to have been the caregiver for two supremely important people in my life. Caregiving surely was not easy, but it was the most important, valuable, loving and rewarding thing I have ever done. I could not save them, but they knew that I was completely devoted to them, and that I would love them, care for them and provide a sense of security to them until they left this world. I treasure the knowledge that they loved me.
I have said it before, but can never say enough, that I am grateful for my friends, who have shown me such kindness, generosity, compassion and encouragement, while I was caregiving and then, in grief. Their spirit extended to Ben as well. When family didn’t step in or made empty promises to him-and there were indeed disappointments and dramas-Ben and I could always count on friends. I consider it a precious gift to have these wonderful people in my life and to know that I am loved and that Ben remains in their hearts.
I am grateful to find comfort in the arts and in my creative endeavors. Blogging has been tremendously helpful, and I am grateful to know that readers find comfort in my words.
And, since today is the anniversary of the release of Toy Story, I must note that Buzz Lightyear was Ben’s very favorite Disney super hero. I am so grateful that even when Ben was feeling weak and somewhat defeated by ALS, Buzz brought him so much joy and laughter. This video clip is one of my very favorite memories. I am so grateful to have these memories.
Walt Disney also said: We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
I’m grateful to have settled into my life, enjoying many of the things I always loved, like going to the theater and spending time with friends, particularly friends I have not been able to see in quite some time. Yes, there is still loneliness and aloneness, but I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by wonderful people, a lot of love, and to carry with me in my heart very beautiful memories.
As I’ve said, I lost myself in caregiving but I also found myself. I discovered that I am a caregiver to my core, and I am pursuing my certificate as a caregiving consultant. I am grateful to have met some wonderful people who, tragically, are experiencing ALS as patients or caregivers. Sharing our experiences is emotional and powerful. I’m grateful to believe that wishes can come true and that there will one day be a cure for ALS and all devastating and terminal diseases.
I am grateful to be teaching in a new and wonderful public high school. Not only is it a healthier environment, but it allowed me to start fresh, away from my old school and the memories it held of the crises, illnesses and, ultimately, the losses of my dad and Ben. It is also an opportunity to redefine myself beyond being seen only as Abby, the person everyone marveled at and felt bad for because I spun in circles juggling caregiving and teaching; Abby the caregiver and the Daddy’s girl who lost her dad and then her husband, even though those experiences are an integral part of me. Not exactly who I am now, but as Walt said, I’m opening new doors and finding my way down new paths.
There are and there will be setbacks and I am consumed with feelings of wanting to be respectful to Ben’s memory and to make my dad proud. I am cautiously optimistic about starting down a new path to see where it leads. My memories will accompany and guide me on my journey and will always be a part of me, and that gives me great comfort and peace. And, I keep reminding myself of what Christopher Robin said to Pooh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” I know I’ll be okay because I have the super power of gratitude that gives me a positive perspective.
Thank you for indulging this reflection and for sharing in my experiences in caregiving and grief.
With all good wishes,