Never have I experienced gratitude in a purer way than when I have lost a loved one.
I suffered the loss of my father at the age of 6. And I had my heart broken at the age of 42. I believe there’s a straight line to be drawn from the loss I experienced as a little boy and the heartbreak and insights that turned me into a man.
Truly, having a father for only six years was ultimately a blessing for me. I mean, what could I mess up over the course of the most innocent years of childhood? The most challenging moment my father and I experienced together was when I tested his boundaries by staying out late, playing on our lawn. When he came outside to call me for dinner, I ran away and I called him a name I once heard through the neighbor’s door. He picked me up, ruffled my blond hair and lifted me over his shoulder. “People don’t say these things my son”, he said. That’s the only clash we ever had.
When my father passed away I didn’t shed a tear. The loss of my role model at such a young age was entirely too threatening. I put the grief aside and lived in a world of fantasy. Protecting myself in such a cocoon put a big fat stamp on my life. It shaped me into who I am today. Not only did my mother teach me to knit, iron and cook up a storm. She also taught me about abandonment. The absence of a father meant that I shaped who I would become in my own world; learning to deal with testosterone-infused competition all by myself. For the longest time I failed miserably. Finding my male strength in a world that was so informed by my mother’s influence was the principal challenge of the first half of my life. Only the heartbreak at the halftime show provided me with the tears that ultimately gave me access to my soul. Only then could I shape myself into a wholehearted man.
When I began socializing outside the protected boundaries of my family — when I picked up ice hockey, and then when I started a career — I kept meeting friends and colleagues with entirely different father-issues than mine.
But what I realized a lot earlier — during my adolescence — was how I had been blessed with a unique relationship with my father. When I began socializing outside the protected boundaries of my family — when I picked up ice hockey, and then when I started a career — I kept meeting friends and colleagues with entirely different father-issues than mine. For some, their issue was that their father was simply alive. I learned of stories of childhood abuse and abandonment – both emotional and physical. I came to realize that I had the blessing of a very warm and spiritual relationship with the man who left me way too early in life. My father and I simply hadn’t had the time to put our relationship to a real test. The challenges of my going through puberty were never an issue for us. And in the face of my friends’ and colleagues’ stories, I came to appreciate that my father and I, to this day, have a relationship that is unmatched by many in this world. He holds a revered place in my mind in heart that might have been impossible for a “normal” long-term father to come close to holding.
This realization provided me with the inspiration to live through the hardest of times. Throughout my life this perspective grew into a much more global perspective on the relationships that came and went in my life: it is always simply the good memories that remain. When someone leaves our life, whether it’s through death or by choice, we often start idealizing the time that has passed. Ultimately, we can only allow good memories to survive. We can come to understand that there were so many little things we truly appreciated about that person.
How many of us have experienced that it’s the little things that one finds unique in another person that can turn into the annoyances we come up against in a relationship, and ultimately fail to change? I’m talking about when someone smacks their lips when they eat a piece of pie; when someone shuffles their feet or wears worn-out house shoes. My favorite academic, Brené Brown, once said that when people lose a loved one, it’s not the once-in-a-lifetime memories they miss, it’s the little things — the fact that they always ate with their mouth open or neglected to blow their nose; when someone was perpetually late; or left the toilet seat up.
The little faults — the quirky human limitations that we have let irritate and damage our relationships while the person was alive — these are the exact moments that stand out at the end.
Reflecting on the relationships I have lost, some through death and others through the sheer inability to keep them going, I recognize that it has been these moments that I have come to miss most dearly. The little faults — the quirky human limitations that we have let irritate and damage our relationships while the person was alive — these are the exact moments that stand out at the end. It is from these experiences of loss, forgiveness, and belated appreciation that I have learned to practice gratitude for the little things in life.
When my friend’s 5 year-old daughter is ripping my last hair-tie from my pony-tail for the 5th time in a row. Wouldn’t “Enough Already!” be the natural response? But the truth is, there’s another story behind her mischievous act. And that’s the story that I now get to see. When my friend’s daughter runs from me laughing and yelling “Get it back, get your hair-tie back from me!” while holding it out in front of my face, I think “Oh boy, how I would miss that nerve-wracking pain in the back of my head,” if one day I found out that she would never pull my hair-tie again. Through the loss of people I have loved, I have learned to feel grateful for the moments when someone really gets on my nerves. I know how much I would miss these moments if suddenly they were gone. And it has made me hope my friend’s 5-year old daughter will pull my hair-tie from my ponytail over and over again.
We invite you to share a story about yourself or another person, reflecting on the question: “How has gratefulness shifted a moment, an experience, or a lifetime?”