Key Teachings

  • Hope is soulful work that is without clichés and blind optimism
  • Hopes are desires that can flee based on the circumstances, but hope is an attitude of the heart
  • Grateful hope guides us back from despair

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all …

Emily Dickinson, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”

Ten years ago when I wrote What Do We Tell the Children?: Talking to Kids About Death and Dying, I was very aware that the book title is a question about hope. Take a moment to set the scene and ask yourself, what do you tell a child whose parent died? This is not an easy scene to enter. But, how we prepare a kid to go on living and loving after that loss has everything to do with hope. As a result, clichés and trite responses have no place. To keep on living during and after tragedy and trauma requires a cultivation of the heart, which does not happen in a soundbite or with false optimism. Hope is profoundly soulful work. 

Early in my work with grieving children and families, I was leading an annual memorial service in a room strewn with feathers. A volunteer committee had come up with the theme “Hope is the thing with feathers” for the service. As I gave my opening remarks, I became agitated by this theme based on Dickinson’s poem. It felt too abstract for the moment, but then in mid-remark — in front of all these kids — it clicked for me. Our hopes can bolt out the door when things get tough, but hope is the thing that remains when the heart is properly tended.

Hope is something greater than our hopes. Hope is an orientation of the heart that endures all things.

My paradoxical interpretation of the poem reminded me that, of course our hopes flee when a beloved dies and our future plans are upended. It is only human that our hopes are called into question when the oppressor appears to be winning or when we are on the verge of defeat. How could our hopes not be tattered and torn when we are told that we are drowning the ecosystem in carbon and destruction looms? Our hopes can easily be like a flock of birds rushing back to their nest at dusk for safety, but hope is something greater than our hopes. Hope is an attitude of the heart that endures all things.

Hope, rather than our hopes, is the immovable force that is wholly recognizable in those who possess it. They are fearless in the face of batons and mobs, in their homes while bombs fall around them, with each medical treatment they endure to live another day, and in each of us who get out of bed despite our loneliness. The examples of hope are countless because hope is embedded in the motion of our daily life — it is the fuel for the thing we do that we do not need to do: live. Nothing says we must continue and yet we do, day after day. The opposite of hope is despair and it takes work and care to stay on the other side of it. 

A grateful hope guides us back to one refrain we hear over and over: You are here. Life is a gift. So breathe into your life.

A grateful hope holds all things together in the face of tragedy, uncertainty, and those conditions that easily invite despair. This is because at the intersection of despair and hope exists gratefulness, as if in the form of a crossing guard. A grateful hope guides us back to one refrain we hear over and over: You are here. Life is a gift. So breathe into your life. It is a mantra, a chorus, a vuvuzela that calls us back to our heart again and again. It is in our heart space that we understand the pain, uncertainty, and encroaching despair — and endure nonetheless. 

This grateful hope, which Kierkegaard calls a “passion for the possible,” is the current that trickles and gushes and remains one step ahead of despair, even if only by a drop. It achieves this because it embraces the past, present, and future. It understands the impermanence of a moment and yet remains grounded in possibility. And when it is alive in us — like electricity or fire — it overcomes fear and anxiety. It is passion (read: fire) itself!

I learned from grieving kids that grateful hope is a stance a grieving child — and the child in us — can cultivate. In life, we can acknowledge pain while also trusting that pain is not where the story ends. In fact, it is often where the story begins, perched on the soul and singing the tune of a heart that bent without breaking. 

Reflection Questions

  • When is a time in your life when your passion for what is possible sustained you through difficulty?
  • When has the evolution of your hopes from desire to possibility led you closer to hopefulness?
  • What is missing in your routines, relationships, or care of your heart that is making a challenging time in your life or world seem impassable?
  • When you reflect on your future, where can what you hold as possible in your heart become inevitable for your life?

Photo by Ronak Valobobhai

Joe Primo, Grateful Living

Joe Primo, Grateful Living

About the author

Joe Primo is the Chief Executive Officer of Grateful Living. He is a passionate trainer, community-builder, and program developer whose accomplishments in the field of grief made him a leading voice on resilience and adversity. Grateful living became a pillar to his work since his first introduction to Br. David Steindl-Rast in 2005. An entrepreneurial leader, Primo designed, built, expanded, and led Good Grief, Inc., the largest children and family bereavement organization in the Northeast, from 2007-2022. His TED talk, “Grief is Good,” reframed the grief paradigm as a responsive resource. He is the author of “What Do We Tell the Children? Talking to Kids About Death and Dying” and numerous articles.