Happy(?) Birthday: Experiencing Gratitude in the Midst of Grief

The little things can be beautiful when you focus on them.

I love birthdays. Sometimes my friends tell me that I’m more excited about their birthdays than they are, but it’s because I feel like it’s an opportunity to celebrate the people they are and what makes them special. My birthday is this week, yet that’s a different story. I’m all for a reason to celebrate, but instead of it feeling like a happy thing, my birthday brings quite a sting with it these days because I’m not healthy. 

See, every birthday of mine that rolls around now is a reminder to me that another year has passed, and I’m still not well. It’s a glaring reminder of what I’ve lost, and the fact that the loss hasn’t stopped yet. My age increases but nothing gets checked off of my “life” list. I thought I’d be finished with school, established in a career that I wanted, married with children, and living in a house of my own. Instead, I have none of that, and it’s not in my control. Things can always be worse, yet sometimes for me, knowing that it could be worse doesn’t always translate into me feeling better about what is not good in the present. How can I adjust my perspective since I can’t fix my circumstances?

What I’ve noticed with my health situation is that when things do get worse, it makes me miss the time when things weren’t quite as bad. For example, 3 years ago I was still missing all of those things that I want in my life, and I was still in a tremendous amount of pain with significant limitations. However, the muscle pain has gotten a lot worse since then, and it has brought with it even more limitations. Now it’s very painful for me to sit in most types of chairs (due to a major iron handling issue), and if I try to push through anyway, the increased pain can last for weeks or months. These days I cannot go to certain places because of the type of chair there, and it makes me miss the times 3 years ago when the type of chair wasn’t so much of a concern. I wish I had enjoyed the freedom of being able to sit in more types of chairs more than I did then. 

Sometimes just telling myself that things could be worse is too elusive to affect a change in how I’m feeling though. What I’m trying to do in addition is to experience current things with a deeper sense of appreciation and gratitude. I’m looking around for specific aspects of my life that I would miss if they were gone, and I’m trying to experience them more deeply and enjoy them more. I think many people can relate to this in terms of COVID- how at one time we attended Mass in person or went out to dinner without thinking anything of it. Then once COVID arrived and everything was shut down, all we could think about was getting to do the things that we once took for granted.

Some days I have an opportunity to visit with a friend, so I enjoy that and cherish it deeply. Many days though I’m just here plugging away with research, sometimes in tears. On those days I try to enjoy the meal that I have and the experience of being full afterwards, as many people in this world do not have such a blessing. I try to experience more fully the air-conditioned house I sit in to do my work, or the flower that blooms outside my front door. I’m trying to open my eyes to specific things that I would miss if they were gone and experience them in a more profound way while they are here, even though I’m still in a lot of pain and missing those bigger things. The little things can be beautiful when you focus on them.

Grief is real though, and it bubbles up at both expected and unexpected times. The tough thing about grief is that you just have to go through it. There’s not really a way to speed it up or bypass it. I used to think that when I experienced the sting of grief, it meant that my faith was not strong enough. However, I’ve come to learn that grief is a normal human experience that doesn’t reflect a lack of faith but rather presents a unique opportunity to grow closer to God. All you have to do is pick up the Psalms to read some heart-wrenching accounts of grief. They give the wonderful example of turning to God in spite of grief. God may not spare us from the grief, but He walks with us and carries us in our grief. 

So, as this birthday rolls around, I’m undoubtedly shedding some tears of grief at times. I’m wishing and praying for a better life. But I’m also experiencing the special people in my life, the roof over my head, the food I have to eat, and the freedom I have to practice my faith and just take a walk in my neighborhood. It’s a both/and scenario. The gratitude doesn’t make the grief disappear, but with God’s grace there can still be gratitude and deeper experiences in the midst of grief. 

I’m asking God to help me measure my years by how I’ve grown in character and faith instead of by what I’ve checked off of “the list.” All of the other things that I want are good, and I hope I get them one day, but they are secondary. The whole point of our lives is to grow in holiness and get to heaven, so I need to keep reminding myself of Colossians 3:2: “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” And I keep asking God what He wants me to do in the here and now, because my presence on earth means there’s still more for me to do.

As I reflect on this past year, I see ways in which I have grown tremendously compared to where I was last year, so that’s a victory. I also see areas in which I want to do better during this coming year. At no point in my life do I want to be the same person I was a year ago. I hope by next birthday I can look back and see how much I’ve grown in holiness compared to where I am today, as that kind of growth is the most important measure of our lives! 

3 thoughts on “Happy(?) Birthday: Experiencing Gratitude in the Midst of Grief

  1. Moved by not only your words but your persistent action and discernment <3 Indeed, in our grief, we feel a hole in our heart and hope, and in that hole, God plants the spirit that nourishes our gratitude. Grateful for you, Alexa, even while I grieve your nearly two decades of pain, confinement, mysteries, and yearning. Happy Birthday Week.

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