Monday, June 23, 2008

From the Gallows of Grief to Gratitude

There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.
Mendel of Kotzk

This quote reminds me of what I've learned during my grief journey. 

I've learned that in brokenness, there can be wholeness. In the darkness, there can be light. In egoism, there can be selflessness. In despair, there can be hope. In ungratefulness, there must, eventually, be gratitude. 

This isn't just psychobabble; for many, it is their survivalist reality. It is the only way that so many bereaved have moved beyond mere suspension.  Those who allow themselves to experience gratitude are often able to transcend their former place in the world. They not only become whole again, but they have reached a threshold of completeness they would never have known would it have not been for their confinement to the gallows.

These are individuals who, despite incapacitating trauma and turmoil, manage to find gratitude for the goodness in their lives. This is not a magical moment of epiphany for many of them. Rather, it evolves over time and with intense cognitive effort.  I believe that finding gratitude- even crumbs or morsels at first- requires emotional maturation, practice, and mindfulness. 

It requires us  to first focus on the self- to take personal responsibility for our own suffering. To acknowledge it. To tell and retell our story. To know ourselves well. It requires us to acknowledge that there is healing in our suffering. It requires that we silence our minds, respect our body's response to the grief, and be gentle with ourselves. It commands patience, intentionality, and commitment to the insufferable pain that radiates from the tips of our hair to the tips of our toes...the agony that causes every cell in our bodies to ache. It requires that we reach out for help from others, sometimes strangers, and that we accept the outreached hand with grace.

Then, when we are ready, we must move beyond the self. We must see the suffering of others. We must acknowledge the other's pain sans the fear of losing or diminishing our own suffering. We must be able to sit compassionately with another, abandoning for a moment our own grief's narcissistic exigence. We must  widen our circle of compassion for all beings suffering. We must see the world through others' eyes.  

We must recognize the acts of kindness, courage, and sacrifice that others have offered along our journey, and extend that droplet of hope to another. It requires that we honor even ill-fated attempts to comfort, and that we reconsider exchanging alienation, anger, and resentment for tolerance, empathy, and acceptance. We must seek gratitude daily, even for the 'small' things in life, like a dandelion dancing on the warm breeze, shadows playing in the park, or a fiery sun setting against a mountainous silhouette- or perhaps, a simple kind word of support from a friend...

Like threads in a garment, grief runs in and out of our daily lives from the instant of Death, one moment often indistinguishable from the next for many days and months. There is a time for this. There is a time to wallow in the mud, a time to pause for the entangling. The garment is unravelling and grief has patterned your life, against your will, in an unfamiliar mosaic.  Yet, gratitude can truly help us to heal from our suffering when the time is right to reconvene our lives. 

And when that time comes, consider your complaints and revisit your expectations. Take the time to fill your heart with gratitude. You can be grateful for what you have without taking away from that which you have lost. 

So, tell someone who has helped you how grateful you are for their presence in your life. Hug someone you love and tell them three things you admire about them. Write a letter or send a card to someone who is making a difference in your community. Leave an anonymous gift for a teacher, doctor, or other "carer". Reach out to another person in mourning.  Let gratitude hang in the shadows, parallel to your grief. It is not magic, but it is transformative. 

When we allow the experience of gratitude, the heart may still be broken but the heart is also most full, most whole, and most complete. Mendel of Kotzk also said, "Where is God to be found? In the place where He is given entry".  Where is gratitude to be found? It can be found in the very place where you have also given it entry. Grief and gratitude can coexist.

I dedicate this posting to our wonderful MISS Foundation moderators, volunteers, and facilitators.  For your commitment to helping others, I am so incredibly grateful.


Theo said...


Thank you so much for that post. Your words echo my own feelings so much more eloquently than I could say myself. I love the Carl Jung quote, "Bidden or unbidden, God is present." It reminds me of the Mendel quote in your post. So many times through my doubt and ungratefulness, railing against having lost my child to a seemingly senseless death, Jung's words somehow gave me strength and a glimmer of hope that the Divine somehow, even when I thought I did not want It, is here for me, in spite of me, because of me, all around me.

Thank you for your unwavering support--I am grateful.


Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

Thank *you* Karla. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post Joanne.
I needed this today.

I am coming into this slowly. I feel a little hand on my back... go ahead momma, it's okay.
And as much as it is hurting, it is also saving me in many ways.

I hope that all of those who have given their kindnesses, their time and tears to your Foundation and to all the parents who have come after them, know without a doubt, what an enormous gift they give.
They and we are blessed.

Love to you,

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

((((( Angie )))))

You and Dallas and Mario have been on my mind constantly...the 12th is coming soon, and I hold you close in my heart through it.

I want to thank you for taking my outreached hand with grace. You are a blessing in my life and I cherish our tragic connection as mothers.



The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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