A Thousand Names for Grief

Posted on in Healthy Living by Kate Targanski

My Grandfather Died Yesterday


Tuesday morning I woke up searching for more time. More time to sleep, more time to close my eyes and make the past few days disappear. More time between today and the inevitable.

Just days ago, I got the call. My 88-year-old grandfather had been admitted to hospice after battling lymphoma for the last few years, and today he rests in peace. The most common response I’ve been offered is to be grateful that I’ve had him around as long as I did, and that he has lived a solid 88 years. Be grateful that it wasn’t so sudden, and that I had a chance to say good-bye. Be grateful for every moment I had with him, from the time of my birth to, well, yesterday. And while all of that is true, feeling the slow tug of my heart being ripped from my chest now takes priority over the gratitude list I should be compiling in my mind. For every ounce of gratitude I can feel toward all these truths, grief is right behind me to shine a light on the obvious loss my heart feels.

These feelings leave me questioning whether gratitude is realistic in any and all life circumstances, or if it is just a buzzword used to hashtag humble brags or mini life fortunes as they occur. Does everything need to feel good for me to be grateful? Is “grateful” just a way to categorize “something good” that happens to us? If so, I need to reevaluate my relationship with gratitude.

See, when we look at gratitude as a way to categorize something favorable that occurs or something wonderful that we receive, we box ourselves in to being conditionally grateful—grateful only when things are going our way. We are grateful when the sun is shining. Grateful when we are on time to work. Grateful when we get an unexpected bonus. We are grateful for the things that occur to us, for us, and as a result of something else. Our relationship with gratitude is now a byproduct, an afterthought, and conditional upon things happening in a certain fashion. And when we look at gratitude as simply an afterthought, I find myself questioning how anyone could possibly be grateful for the loss and pain experienced when losing a loved one.

But what if gratitude comes first? What if gratitude becomes the filter through which we perceive and receive, no matter what is occurring to us or for us? How does our life change when we choose gratitude and then the experience? Can we possibly “gratitude-away” all of life’s jagged edges? The answer is obviously, no, we can’t. You’re going to be late to work at least one more time. And the death of a loved one is inevitable.

While grief and devastation are all very real feelings, they are mutually exclusive of appreciation and gratitude. While it may be hard to find silver linings when we have tears in our eyes, or to say “thank you” through gritted teeth, it’s absolutely imperative to our heart and soul. It is so easy to stay bitter and to resign ourselves to the idea that life is something that happens to us and is fair only part of the time. And be resigned to the fact that when good things happen to us, it’s simply because we’re lucky or have done something to earn it. But moving through life with conditional gratitude takes away our intrinsic power to live a beautiful life all of the time. When we choose to be grateful only when things go our way, we shorten the spectrum in which we can experience this life around us and are caught in the cycle of just waiting for the next thing we deem gratitude-worthy, instead of recognizing the treasure that is already around us, constantly.

Unconditional gratitude will not dissolve or transcend pain. It won’t override the sharp edges of grief that will undoubtedly sneak up on you. And it won’t make losing a person you love any easier. But if unconditional gratitude has done one thing for me, it has given me peace. It has freed me from the concept that when you feel pain or sadness, you also need to suffer. It eliminates the psychological tug of war between good and bad, and the respective feelings associated with both. And, while I’d love for the magic pill of gratitude to fill the hole inside my chest, I’m grateful that it won’t. And that I will forever be changed by this, and that I get to actively participate in this level of love, compassion, and loss, instead of simply waiting for the next obvious reason to feel grateful.

We have a chance to experience love and loss fully, without needing it to be something else. So when the storm of grief undoubtedly comes, shaking everything you’ve known, instead of holding tighter to the status quo, take a deep breath and lean in.

Kate Targanski wrote this for Common Ground, on short notice, in loving memory of her grandfather, Dr. Alexander Kovach, (9/3/1927–10/29/2015). A loving husband, father to four, grandfather to seven, great-grandfather to one. A man of honor serving God, his country, and the patients he treated.

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