When my husband and I had our first little girl, he had just begun a graduate program in Marriage and Family therapy. Our sweet Ava had been born with a congenital heart defect, and a myriad of other health issues, and was in the NICU for 7 weeks in a city 2 hours away from our home. It was a very trying situation emotionally, physically (she was born via emergency c-section), mentally and financially.
She was discharged from the hospital with a lot of unanswered questions, and 24 hour health needs. My husband and I took care shifts at night because essentially one person needed to be watching after her to adjust her constantly fluctuating oxygen levels. It was November, and Thanksgiving was upon us. I had heard of people keeping a gratitude log, and one particularly difficult and heart wrenching night we decided to write something every day that we were grateful for to see if that would lift our exhausted and discouraged spirits.
Mundane items were listed first. We obviously were grateful for heat, since winter in Northern Utah was upon us. We were grateful for plumbing. No brainer. But then something remarkable happened as we wrote humble expressions of thanks. We began to feel truly blessed. That bag of Mint M&Ms proved to be a Godsend as we both feverishly worked into the wee hours of the morning to revise a final paper in time to meet the deadline. Fuzzy socks felt like they were hugging our feet, and became treasures. We saw the goodness of neighbors who brought meals, called, listened to and cried with us. Our comfy couches became luxurious day beds since all of our time was spent with our baby on those couches so she would remain connected to her oxygen. Common place items became saturated with thanks, and our hearts grew so much lighter.
Now, I wish that this was a happily ever after story, but it isnt. At least in the traditional sense of everyone getting exactly what they want and having only rays of golden sunshine upon the land. A few days after the New Year, our sweet girl passed away at 3 months and 1 day old. She never got an official diagnosis, but we knew that her life had purpose and beauty. We were heartbroken and full of mourning, but that was tempered with gratitude. And gratitude made that experience--one of the most dark experiences one can endure on this green earth--sweet. It lessened the bitter, and amplified the good. And it was a real power in our lives in the days, weeks, years following her death. I will always miss that tiny and darling baby of ours, and though it sounds crazy, I also cannot help but cry in thankfulness for all the blessings that were showered down upon us during that time. Even now, I am overcome with thanks for the very fact that I was able to, through modern medicine and God's grace, meet my child and care for her, even for a short and troubling time.
As my husband continued in his graduate program, he came upon some research that corroborated our unexpected and sweet experience with gratitude. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, studied several interventions and their effect upon an individual's self-reported happiness level. (You can find the full text of the article here.) Essentially, what they found was that the intervention that had the most positive influence for the longest amount of time was a kind of gratitude log of writing down three good things each day and the cause of those good things. Very simple intervention, but it had the longest staying power of positivity. Seligman found, in fact, that:
While gratitude may not change arduous circumstances, it can temper the heaviness of troubles with the acknowledgement of how many things in our lives are going wonderfully well, of how many conveniences we have at our disposal, at how many people are indeed standing behind us to help and lift, and how good life has been to us in unmerited and undeserving ways. Gratitude didnt change the events in my life, but it changed the flavor. It made my life sweet.
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