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Expectations, Gratitude and Grief

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By Don Phillipson

If you are in or have been through a HOPE Connection spousal loss support group, were you surprised by the depth and strength of the bonds you formed with other group members? It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sharing intimate memories, the profound experience of realizing you’re not alone, insights about grief gained by listening intently — how could bonds not form through this process?

A man holding his arms up in gratitude

There is another aspect to the group experience, and it follows from the organization of the groups themselves.  They are organized by time since “date of loss” because people who have lost a spouse typically experience different aspects of grief in a rough chronological order. One realization that often comes perhaps toward the end of Group One, or maybe the beginning of Group Two, is revealed in a simple comment from a member: “I always expected that my husband and I would grow old together, laugh at our old-age aches and pains together. Losing him is not what I expected.”

When you lose something you expected to have, your grief is further complicated. You grieve the loss of your spouse. But you also grieve the loss of your shared future. Your expectations — your vision for your life — have been shattered. The pain we feel is not only for losing a loved one — it is the pain of losing all we expected to have.

Gratitude and Healing

Farther along in the grieving process, HOPE therapists encourage members to think of something they’re grateful for. Gratitude helps the healing process and is an essential part of grieving. It might seem difficult if grief is still acute. What can I possibly be grateful for when I’ve lost my spouse, my future, my life?

We’re encouraged to focus on something — anything — just to cultivate that feeling of gratitude. It might help to start with fundamental things. Your eyesight. A grandchild’s smile. A cherished friend. The home you live in. Losing a spouse heightens your awareness that any one of these can be gone in an instant. One response to that reality is despair. An opposite response is a deep appreciation and gratitude for that particular thing in the moment. Cultivating that attitude takes a little work, but it is work worth doing that leads to healing.

Having a heightened feeling of gratitude for all the things you have is a blessing that comes from having lost your loved one — if you will accept that blessing. But there is an even more important step possible: instead of expecting to have all the wonderful things in your life, what if we did not expect to retain anything outside of our control? What if we spent a bit of each day simply appreciating our good fortune without expecting that anything is permanent? Eliminating your expectations is the surest way to allow you to deeply appreciate every gift in your life, from your eyesight to dear friends to a bright and sunny day. When you don’t expect to have something, and each day you wake up and it’s there almost as a gift, gratitude can overwhelm you and fill your heart with joy. This might be a crucial way not only to heal your grief but also exponentially increase your happiness if this habit becomes a way of life.

Your Support Group

In this unprecedented time, if you are still in a support group, something has been prohibited that you probably expected to have free access to: personal interaction with those in your group. Loving smiles. Hugs. Kind words.

Now you experience those things to a degree through a computer screen. Even here there is an opportunity for gratitude. Thankfulness for the technology that allows us to virtually support one another. And if we continue to grieve properly, when we return to our lives, or return to a new normal, we will have the chance not to take any part of our way of life for granted — even and perhaps especially the support we give each other. We will have the opportunity to see our expectations for what they are: an unrealistic vision of a future we cannot control.

By Don Phillipson