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Grief and Gratitude

Those of us who have traveled and lived internationally realize, perhaps more than others, just how incredibly much beauty and brokenness reside on our planet. The beauty and brokenness may dwell within us. They may dwell all around us. They may drift through our memories.

I recently found myself kayaking down a crystal clear river, aware of a war that was, as I paddled, breaking apart cities where I had once lived. Cities I cared about. In later days the pain would overrun me for a time, but at that moment I found myself able to hold the grief in one hand, the joy in the other. I could "see" the chaos and violence. I could see the blue ripples. I could "hear" the explosions. I could hear birds singing. I could "smell" the smoke. I could smell the dampness of the rich soil. I could "feel" fear prickling my skin. I could feel the sun on my back.

It was as if I held the grief in one hand, the delight in the other. Neither could cancel the other out.

At least, not in that moment.

And so I continued to hold them both. To pay attention to both. To allow myself to feel both; to acknowledge the reality of both.

Sometimes in the stillness of the night the sadness comes in waves. Sadness over all that is broken. Over all that I wish was different. Over all that is, and all that is not. And yet, with the sadness comes an awareness that I have the privilege of feeling sad while lying comfortably in a warm, clean bed in a quiet room. The luxury of time to reflect on sadness and a mind sound enough to grapple with the complexities of life. The privilege of contemplating sadness with a belly full of nourishing food.

Many of my clients attempt to banish sadness with gratitude. To think happy thoughts and push anything negative to a distant lobe of the brain. Gratitude seems acceptable; sadness feels forbidden. I used to do this myself. The two feel so antithetical, so opposite. It was author Jerry Sittser who helped me understand that sorrow "enlarges the soul"* Sadness, if we allow it to do its work in us, increases our capacity for joy and meaning. Some have proposed that without grief we would not know joy; it would be meaningless. And maybe it is because we know just how delightful and full life can potentially be that we grieve so deeply.

I am too much of an idealist to passively accept sorrow when it doesn't have to be that way. I urge my clients to examine their options, even challenging ones. Can anything at all be done about the pain they find themselves in? The climb out of the abyss of depression or dysfunction may be excruciating, but I have yet to meet anyone who regretted their struggle out of despair.

Yet when we find ourselves faced with unyielding granite walls of pain we cannot change, the only way through is to keep walking with one step of sorrow, one step of gratitude at a time.

What grief and what gratitude are you carrying with you today?

Laura Lanford is a professional counselor with a special place in her heart for internationals, expats, immigrants, refugees, third culture kids and all who have been "uprooted". She focuses on trauma, grief and loss, attachment and relationships, and finding connectedness and a sense of home in a world of global uncertainty. Learn more at

*Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss

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