When disaster strikes, gratitude is really worth the effort


Last week I dreamed about my own death.

A big truck drove right up close to a high-rise building and slammed into a pillar holding the building up. As I sat in my car nearby, I watched the building falling on me.

No fear. Just the thought – I am going to die. Just like that. I can’t stop it. It’s happening right now. Then I am gone.

The dream was intensely vivid and when I woke up, I knew it was telling me I don’t have to be afraid of death. This was an important message for me because, in the lead-up to the dream, I had been sitting with my mother as she was dying. 

My dear Mum caught COVID in aged care. At first it was just a sniffle and we thought how amazing – she is going to sail right through COVID. But then, in an instant, the news changed. She succumbed to pneumonia, which is a curse – or a blessing – for the elderly, depending on your perspective. 

For us, it was a blessing because Mum was ready to die. She had been for the last two years as she lived with chronic pain and had advanced Alzheimer’s. And yet, as I sat by her bed, waiting for her to die, I reflected on whether I was really ready to say goodbye. 

Sitting with my Mum was a lesson in presence. As I sat by her bed, I simply watched my breathing – and hers – and I noticed Mum’s breathing becoming more and more shallow. Then, when she was hardly breathing at all, she would gasp for air in a full – and painful – deep breath.  I knew the end was close, so it was an intense mindfulness practice to stay with the experience of sitting with my Mum. 

The death of a loved one is always a wake-up call. There’s nothing like losing some-one close to you to make you wake up to how great life already is – if you can just stop and smell the roses.  In the face of adversity, reflecting on even the smallest blessings and successes can have a really big impact on your relationships and your life. 

Sitting with my Mum was an opportunity to practice gratitude. I’m grateful that my dear Mum brought me into this world, she fed and clothed me, and gave me an education. She taught me values of compassion and care for the planet, and the courage to be an independent woman, and to do my best to help create a fairer and more equal world. 

Despite having so much to be grateful for, I had not felt a close connection with my mother for a long time. And yet I stepped up to help care for her when she developed Alzheimer’s. I think she taught me that’s what daughters do, and I guess I wanted to help Mum because, as my mother, she had given me so much. 

As her Alzheimer’s progressed, Mum forgot that she had not been very emotionally expressive with me. I don’t remember her saying “I love you” to me very often in my adult life. But in the last year she would spontaneously hug me and say ”I love you” and I would say “I love you Mum” whenever I saw her.

The leading researcher on gratitude, Robert Emmons, has written extensively on the impact of gratitude practice in difficult times. Eamons explains it’s easy to feel grateful when life is good, but it’s when disaster strikes, that gratitude is really worth the effort.

“Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth. So telling people simply to buck up, count their blessings, and remember how much they still have to be grateful for can certainly do much harm. Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity…. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.”

It was a challenge and a blessing to be able to care for my mother in the last five years.  In the last year, she started forgetting I was her daughter. Sometimes she thought I was just a kind lady who did things to help her. My motivation was more profound.

Being a carer for my Mum was one of the greatest joys and privileges of my life. I healed my relationship with my mother by caring for her. This helped me to prepare for her death, and at her funeral, I realised I was ready to say goodbye.

Dear Mum, you are dearly loved and you will be greatly missed.

Thank you for your courage, your wicked sense of humour, your beautiful garden, and for teaching me about Australian plants. Thank you for the care and compassion you had for the disadvantaged, and for the planet and all its creatures. Thank you for making me the person I am.

Five powerful practices to cultivate gratitude


The positive impacts of gratitude for physical and mental health have been well demonstrated in numerous research studies (Emmons & Mishra, 2011), as have the benefits for relationships (Lambert & Fincham, 2011). Whether it is in your personal or work relationships, practising gratitude has the power to repair challenging or broken relationships.

Here are 5 ways to cultivate gratitude. These practices have the power to change your day, your relationships, and they could even change your life.

1. Reflect on gratitude

Reflect on the things and people you are grateful for or keep a Gratitude Journal. Even being grateful for small blessings or successes will make a difference, rewiring the brain for the positive.  It takes time for your reflections to have an impact so stick at it, every day if possible.

2. Reflect on death

Whether it’s your own death and the death of people close to you, contemplating death brings perspective and makes you grateful for even the smallest blessings.  It can ultimately have the power to heal relationships.

3. Give thanks

Expressing your gratitude out loud to others has a positive impact on others, as well as making your own state of mind more positive. How good does it feel when some-one says thank you to you?

4. Savour positive experiences

Bringing awareness to positive experiences brings them to the forefront of your experience. Savouring even the smallest blessings or successes in your life is like stopping to smell the roses. There is exquisite beauty in the smallest things in life if you simply pay attention.

5. Be happy for others

Being happy for others has a rich tradition in the world religions. Taking joy in the happiness of others – not just those close to us but also acquaintances and people we find difficult – will benefit them as well and you. Remember how good it feels when some-one is happy for you?

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a former CEO who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years. Maria’s Transforming Resilience Program helps participants make deep and lasting change by learning what resilience really is and how to put it into practice.  

References:

Emmons, R. A., & Mishra, A. (2011). Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know. In K. M. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan, & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward (pp. 248–262). Oxford University Press. 

Lambert, N. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Expressing gratitude to a partner leads to more relationship maintenance behavior. Emotion, 11(1), 52–60. 

© Maria Brett, 2022