On Feeling Grateful


The worst has happened, and it could have been worse. 

Feeling grateful after unspeakable tragedy is a tricky thing. But like many things that violated my expectations about the aftermath of trauma and loss, I have found gratefulness to show up in a big way. Surely we’ve had moments of hating the universe and feeling cursed and personally attacked by misfortune, but it’s been surprisingly instinctive to feel grateful — in part because there really is a lot to be grateful for. I also think we gravitate to gratefulness because our brains need it.

On the fifth day after Jackson died, I was staring at the blank journal my sister had given me. I was struggling with insomnia and intense waves of shock and despair. Strangely, I realized that the only thing that helped in those early days was to think of things for which I was grateful, and the ways it could have been worse. I jotted these down as my first journal entry:

  • Jackson only knew love and joy in his life
  • Jackson died in his sleep without evidence of pain or suffering 
  • Jackson didn’t die as a result of negligence or parental mistake
  • Jackson didn’t spend his last days/weeks/months dying slowly in a hospital
  • Bryan and I were together when we found Jackson that morning
  • Although a part of us died that day with him, we are still here

Realizing the ways this could have been worse did not feel forced or contrived. I desperately needed to think through the ways in which we were fortunate. The more I thought about it, the broader the gratitude became — not only about the exact circumstances of his death, but about our general life circumstances and support network. The list grew rapidly:  

  • Our parents are alive and able to physically and emotionally help us survive this
  • We have family in Seattle and eager-and-able-to-visit family in California
  • We have a beyond-incredible network of friends, colleagues, and mentors
  • Our family has the financial means to fund cremation, memorial, and counseling services that many other families cannot readily afford
  • We are educated and have access to information and the ability to understand it; my parents are doctors and have helpful knowledge to fill in the gaps
  • Our marriage is strong and I strongly believe we will “make it” together
  • I have a background in psychological recovery after trauma and know many excellent psychologists
  • We have the incredible SUDC Foundation to provide resources and support 
  • Jackson had the most incredible day care experience with the kindest most dedicated teachers who loved him as their own, and who continue to stay in touch 
  • Jackson made it to his wonderful second birthday party 
  • Jackson got to experience so many "bucket list" things that we thankfully didn’t postpone (e.g., swimming lessons, music lessons, zoo and aquarium visits, potty training, precious photoshoots, trip to Puerto Rico, family reunions, trips to Camano and California, and so much bacon and ice cream)
  • Jackson touched the lives of many; and through that, will live on in so many memories
  • We got to experience the incredibly special gift of parenthood, however brief
  • We have Stella 

After nine weeks-worth of hearing others’ stories, connecting with other parents, and reading countless books about grief and loss, it has become so abundantly clear that we are so, so, so immensely lucky. Even our grief counselor pointed out last week, “Your support network is exceptional – I mean, truly, exceptional”. She is right, the outpour of love and support we have received is out-of-this-world, incredibly, uniquely, special.

We’ve been flooded with cards and messages and calls, dozens and dozens and dozens of flowers, and have yet to cook for ourselves after two months of mealtrain. Our family and friends have raised thousands of dollars for Seattle Children’s Hospital and PEPS (who recently notified us that the funds will ensure that "every parent in the Seattle area will receive the support they need”). Masses have been held, trees and flowers planted, tattoos inked, half-marathons run, and memorial tributes scheduled. We’ve received thoughtful gifts (“Jackson” jewelry, grief books, long-distance care packages, candle votives, a very special bird feeder, and endless self-care products and experiences). Day care teachers hand made a memory book and enshrined his favorite bear slippers. My incredible friends and colleagues have taken over my clients, taught my classes, and kept my dissertation research going in my absence. My mentors helped me apply for internship, hand-picked our incredible grief counselor, and have provided the most incredible emotional and professional support. Our friends have taken turns visiting, many traveling multiple times from California, just to hold us and be with us. My lovely Chi O’s in San Francisco held an “Option B” book club to support us from afar. Brette Humphrey gave the most incredible Eulogy at Jackson’s service and Jesse Dashe held our hands as we picked up Jackson’s ashes. Our sister-in-law Jordan, with the help and support of family and friends, planned and organized his beautiful service. And our brand-new neighbors held us on that tragic morning until the outpour of family and friends arrived. All I know it that it takes a village to survive this, and we have an army of the world’s greatest.

The reality is that none of this takes the pain away (I wish it did), but it sure helps us survive it. So on this Thanksgiving day, allow me to thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for holding us in yours. We are deeply, deeply grateful.