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Cultivating Gratitude When Life is Hard, by Jane Stanley

Have you ever made a gratitude tree with your kids? You make some sort of trunk and then write what you’re grateful for on little leaves throughout the month of November. Then you, the parent, learn about how gratitude is (generally) easy and fun for kids. They are thankful for all kinds of delightfully mundane things like Cheerios and their bestest best friend Joe and SOCKS! I was taught this simple tradition before Pinterest existed, but I’m told that now there are many iterations including hand-stitched tablecloths and calligraphed pumpkins. No matter how simple or fancy, the concept is the same: start noticing all of the blessings in your life.

If you do this tradition for a couple of years, you might come across a difficult year. Your kids might be scribbling furiously on their little leaves, listing all of the incredible things that they are so thankful for, while you find yourself stuck. The pen is in your hand, the empty leaves are in front of you, but you can’t think of honest things to put on them. And your heart might break a little. You might feel ashamed, because who on Earth doesn’t have something to be grateful for? But when life throws you a few curveballs, the very things that you are grateful for might also be stretching you, challenging you beyond what you think is possible.

What do you do when a year like that comes around? As the parents of disabled children, I think we face many of these difficulties a lot more often than your average Joe. I’ve noticed that people tend to list the same sets of things when they go around the Thanksgiving table and say what they are thankful for: health, family and friends. So how can you be grateful when you’ve had to sit with your child in the ICU this year or when surgeries loom ahead? Or when there are family rifts or misunderstandings? Or when you feel distant from friends who can’t or won’t understand what life is like for you and your kids? When you feel increasingly isolated because of your child’s difficulties?

First of all, if you don’t feel like sharing your blessings or writing leaves with your kids this year, you have every right to excuse yourself. Please don’t let Turkey Day shame you. It’s okay to say, “I’m not feeling up to that this year.” We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to keep up these traditions, but traditions aren’t commandments. God can handle it if we’re not feeling up to the gratitude tree this year. In fact, if life has been particularly hard, trust that God is holding you close to His heart.

However, it might be the case that you sincerely want to rekindle that spirit of gratitude in your heart. You dearly want to join your children on the gratitude tree or at least send a heartfelt prayer of thanks up to God, but you want to do so honestly. In that case, there are ways to cultivate a spirit of gratitude even when it feels hopeless. Here are a few ways to get you started.

  1. Remember the greater story of your life. It’s easy to get fixated on the everyday problems that weigh me down right now, but when an acquaintance asks me about how my husband and I met or about one of our baby’s birth stories, I remember the ways God has blessed me. The simple joy of those times tends to remind me that the current problems, however heavy or difficult they may be, are not all that there is to my life. Looking at old photos is also a great way to enter into this mental shift.

  2. If you can’t think of anything to be grateful for, intentionally put something there that will cause you to be grateful! When life is overwhelming, I tend to forget about the little things and consequently neglect them. It can make a huge difference in my day if I know that I’m going to have a really good cup of coffee in the morning or if I’m wearing a pair of super soft socks. If I’m consciously putting something enjoyable in my day, sometimes it wakes me up to other small joys as well.

  3. Tell someone thank you. Sometimes we forget how much we belong to each other. Even when things are going crazy, there are still many people that I can sincerely thank. My son’s virtual schooling might feel like a complete and utter mess which I am definitely NOT grateful for, and yet I know his teacher is working hard for him. She’s doing her best, even if things are still really hard. I’ve found that this is true with hospital stays and doctors visits as well. Even if my child is not getting better as quickly or in the ways that I would like him to, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a team of doctors and nurses who deserve my gratitude. I find that expressing a sincere thanks to anyone helps me remember the many people who are invisibly “in my corner.” It might be the stranger who held the door open for me, the nurse who took my son’s vitals with a smile, or my husband who took the trash out. Looking someone in the eyes and telling that I’m grateful for them changes things in my heart.

  4. Ask God to show you your blessings. It’s so simple, and yet I forget to do so all the time. When I am really struggling, I turn to God and ask Him to show me what I’m missing. He knows everything I’m facing and how discouraged I’m feeling, and He knows exactly the thing that I need to hear if only I’m willing to ask and listen.

Whether your gratitude tree is loaded with leaves or whether you are sitting this year out, I wish you and your family a very blessed Thanksgiving!

Jane Stanley is a wife and a mother to five children. She reads, writes, and homeschools in Central Virginia.

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