The Healing Power of Gratitude

Excerpts from an article by Joan Buchman

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Family Crisis Upsets a Delicate Balance

A previously slow-growing thyroid cancer that my husband’s sister, Janette, had been living with for over 20 years, became active and very fast moving. After unsuccessful chemotherapy, the cancer had spread to her liver and she was going downhill quickly.

My husband and I asked her to come live with us, which she accepted. For the next 5-1/2 months, until her death, we lived together, sharing the ups and downs, the laughter and tears, the hope and the fear.

As Janette’s primary caregiver, I was unable to continue with my daily routine of exercise, regular resting and social activities. The high stress and the loss of my routine led to some increase in pain and fatigue. The stress of caregiving for those months affected me emotionally more than anything. Seeing someone I loved fading before my eyes was very difficult. During this crisis, the emotional support I needed came from an unexpected source.

Help from a Simple Exercise

A few months before Janette came to live with us, I was browsing in a local bookstore while doing Christmas shopping. I spotted a book titled “The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude.” I recognized Sarah Ban Breathnach as the author of “Simple Abundance.” Most of the book consisted of a page for each day of the year, followed by five blank lines.

I was intrigued by her idea that there could be powerful effects from writing each day five things you were grateful for. I bought the book as a gift to myself, little knowing what a significant role that small book would play in helping me survive one of the most stressful periods of my life.

For a month and a half before Janette came, I wrote in my Gratitude Journal every day. It was the last thing I did at night before going to sleep. Sometimes I struggled to find 5 things for which I was grateful; occasionally, one of those was, “I’m grateful this day has ended.” But I stuck with it.

During the months Janette was with us, I felt it was very important to keep up with the Gratitude Journal and I focused on aspects of this situation from which I could pull out something to be thankful for. Often, it was something Janette was doing to find peace with her life and death. She reached out to just about everyone who had ever been in her life.

In return, she experienced an outpouring of love like I had never seen. She received many letters, phone calls, even visits from old friends who traveled cross-country to see her. At times, this outpouring was overwhelming to her. But, at the same time, she was so nurtured by it, it helped give her strength to go on. Janette was a constant inspiration, for in her final months, besides reaching out to others, she took time to appreciate her surroundings and the pleasures of everyday life.

We took her to the California Coast one weekend and she was inspired by the nature that was there. She stared at the ocean and the contentment on her face was amazing. Paul took her to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and she loved it. She was reaching out to grasp everything around her, even though she knew she didn’t have long to live.

Learning the Power of Gratitude

Janette taught me to treasure what I have right now. Gratitude means appreciating what you have and making the most from that. So I began to express in my journal appreciation for people in my life and my life as it was… I had learned that moving as fast as I could, doing as much as possible, was not making me happy. I was not taking any time to nurture my physical, mental or emotional needs. I believe that my body was shouting at me to slow down and savor life…

Gratitude is not about “looking at the bright side” or denying the realities of life. Gratitude goes much deeper than that. It’s about learning from a situation, taking the good to help deal with other challenges in the future. It’s about finding out that you have more power over your life than you previously imagined. You can stop being a victim of your circumstances and reach out to the joy in living. If you open your heart to the good in your life, gratitude becomes as much a part of your life as breathing.

So I continue to write in my Gratitude Journal. Only now, I do it in my head, every minute of every day. I do not limit myself to five lines.

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