My mother, who is a wise woman, sent me a column a week ago that she had cut out of the newspaper. The column had been written by a grief counselor, someone who works closely with the dying and their loved ones in the face of terminal diagnoses. While she identified five lessons that she had learned from the dying in the column, I want to draw on the last one, particularly because it was just Valentine’s Day and it’s still winter.
She wrote that the dying most regret that they didn’t allow themselves to be happy, that they worked harder than they should have and didn’t spend enough time with people that they loved. At the end of their lives, they found new priorities.
This idea is hardly a new one, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last few weeks as my life has become increasingly hectic among planning the summer, dealing with extracurriculars and discovering that papers are not merely the universe’s bad joke on the sleep-deprived. My life has become about fitting loved people and joyous experiences into the pre-existing framework of activities and obligations, not the other way around.
And I’ll be honest: there has been a lot of death in my life and the lives of my close friends in the last few years. Grandparents have passed away; tragic accidents have occurred; parents have inexplicably been diagnosed with cancer. In the shadow of death and grieving, I’ve become both more grateful to be alive and more conscious of the compromises I make on an everyday basis — the compromises that sometimes keep me from really being happy.
So it was a pleasant surprise this Valentine’s Day to wake up to a goofy Valentine from a friend in my college, to receive a loving email from a friend who I traveled with in China but who I haven’t seen in months, to get a phone call from my surrogate big brother who lives halfway across the world. I went to dinner with a dear friend and felt unspeakably grateful both that I was making time to be happy — making time for the people that mattered — and that the shadow of tragedy can be cut short with love.
Today, when I went in to work at the nonprofit where I intern downtown, I noticed for the first time a quote someone had stuck next to the computer in the cubicle where I was typing. The quote said that gratitude was clarifying because it makes order out of chaos.
In the chaos of my own life, and in the disorder that death and tragedy leave in their wake, I often forget to be grateful for what I do have. The gratitude I felt on Valentine’s Day was short-lived: I went back to the paper I was writing immediately thereafter. But this idea that gratitude was a force of clarification has stuck with me, maybe because I need a little clarity, maybe because something did slam into place when I thought about what I was grateful for even in the midst of coping with frustration and loss.
Gratitude and grieving are two sides of the same paradigm: both are an acknowledgment of our deep feelings of attachment to being alive and our deep need to be loved and acknowledged. In looking at the quote, reading my mother’s article and by living through one of the first not-silly Valentine’s Days I’ve ever had, I remember that it is appropriate to feel both grief and gratitude, sometimes at the same time.
I put the article up on my wall to remind me how important it is to chase happiness, to find room for people and pleasures that show us why being alive is wonderful, even when it’s winter.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.