At this time of year, we hear a lot about gratitude and positivity. Children learn
about the importance of giving thanks in school. Individuals participate in #30DaysofGratitude challenges. Families and friends join together to celebrate over food and wine and decorate with Thanksgiving signs and decor.
Practicing gratitude can often be a wonderful way of gaining perspective, humility, compassion, and connection. It has even been shown to improve emotions, energy level, and immune system functioning.
But what if you’re angry instead of thankful?
As a therapist, I’ve had the sacred privilege of working with individuals experiencing a wide variety of pain, trauma, and loss. This has included individuals who were grieving the loss of loved ones, experiencing loved ones with chronic or terminal illness, or who were either in remission from or facing a chronic or terminal diagnosis themselves. I will forever be indebted to these individuals for teaching and giving me more than I could ever have hoped to offer them in return. When individuals are facing death, whether their own or the death of a loved one, their capacity for self-exploration, growth, healing, and authenticity transforms into wellspring of wisdom and intuitive knowing.
One of the many things I’ve learned from my clients doing grief work is that there is enough room for ALL feelings. And not just the positive, grateful, feel-good, fluffy ones. For many individuals with cancer diagnoses, accessing positivity can serve as a beacon for where to direct energy and from where to regain lost energy. But for many others, the pressure to be positive or thankful can feel shaming and minimizing of the enormity and complexity that comes with facing death or trauma. That comes with facing the end of life.
Hope and gratitude are beautiful, powerful, magical gifts when one truly feels and experiences them. When one is able to access them and able to choose them. Yes, I believe you can choose hope (but only when you’re ready and wanting). Hope and gratitude do not replace the need to be and feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Hope and gratitude do not replace other feelings. They can support other feelings. They can stand alongside other feelings. They can often bolster and sustain the weight of other feelings. But they should not come at the cost of or at the hastening of a full range of emotions.
And what if there is no hope?
For some, there is none. Or at least none that feels accessible at the times we may need it. For a parent facing the death of their child, for a 22 year old facing her own imminent death, for an individual experiencing the loss of a loved one due to suicide, hope may feel too far and foreign to access. I’ve had clients facing their own death share intense shame about the fact that they were not feeling more hopeful and grateful for what they did have, but who were instead feeling frightened, weak, and angry. Some shared they felt like “bad cancer patients” because they did not feel up for participating in cancer walks or wearing pink or presenting an upbeat, warrior “I’m going to beat this” attitude. Some shared feeling pressure to fake a false sense of hope for others, amidst feeling isolated and alone in their fear and hopelessness and rage about the reality of their circumstance.
There is no *GOOD* way to face end of life or trauma, or any kind of hurt, for that matter. You are not *BAD* for feeling whatever feeling you are experiencing.
This holiday season, if you are feeling hopeful and grateful, good for you. I don’t mean this in a glib sort of way. Truly, how wonderful if you are able to access hope and gratitude.
But, if you’re sad, give yourself permission to be sad. If you’re scared, be scared. If you're angry, be angry. You do not owe others your feelings or apologies for your feelings. All emotions are important and there is enough room for all of your emotions to coexist. Including anger. In fact, anger can be a really healthy emotion and is often necessary for healing. It’s often through fully experiencing and releasing our anger that we make room for hope.
As I see everyone's 30 days of thankfulness pop up each year, I can't help to think of what a hard time of year it is for folks who aren't feeling thankful and who are perhaps hurting a great deal.
Seven Thanksgivings ago, we had just loss our second baby. I remember feeling so full of anger and having a hard time feeling thankful for much at all. I remember others telling me to “stay positive” and to "be thankful" we were even able to get pregnant. This year and each year since, I'm thankful most for the 'ability' to feel thankful and my heart goes out to those who are having a hard time feeling thankful right now. Those who may have lost jobs, lost loved ones, or who have maybe just lost hope. I won’t say that it WILL get better (I don't know that. I won't promise you something I don't know). Just that it CAN get better.
This holiday season, I wish for you to have room to feel whatever it is you need to feel. Whether that’s gratitude and hope OR fear, sadness, and anger…..or all of the above at once. When and if you’re able and ready, I wish for you the ability to choose hope. Not the fluffy, everything-will-be-okay-just-have-hope, there’s-a-silver-lining-to-everything, everything-happens-for-a-reason, just-be-positive kind of hope. But the kind that is gritty and often hard to access. The kind of hope that sometimes looks like anger or fear initially. The kind of hope that may take work. That may be exhausting at times. The kind of hope that allows you to not have to choose to relinquish other parts of your experience but that provides you enough space to fully express and feel whatever it is you need to feel and express.