From Grief to Gratitude (Part 5)

What if it isn’t possible to be at peace with yourself unless you are at peace with your parents? What if the next step toward healing from childhood wounds is a step toward the people who wounded you?

[This is Part 5 of a series on the Parent/Child Relationship.
Find previous posts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.]

In my previous post, I made the claim that all of us were wounded by our parents, and that we need to grieve those wounds to find healing. In this post, I want to go further and say that the path to healing and wholeness ultimately requires us to move beyond the graveyard of grief, and into the realm of gratitude.

To help me make this claim, I am going to use a quote from Dallas Willard, which can be found in The Divine Conspiracy (p. 138):

At the heart of our identity lies our family, and our parents in particular. We cannot be thankful for who we are unless we can be thankful for them. Not, certainly, for all the things they have done, for they may have been quite horrible. And in many cases we must come to have pity on them before we can be thankful for them.

Nevertheless, the fifth of the Ten Commandments says, “Honor your father and your mother,” and then adds, “that you may enjoy a long life in the land the Lord your God gives to you.” And Paul notes that this is “the first commandment with a promise attached to it.”

The promise is rooted in the realities of the human soul. A long and healthy existence requires that we be grateful to God for who we are, and we cannot be thankful for who we are without being thankful for our parents, through whom our life came. They are a part of our identity, and to reject and be angry with them is to reject and be angry with ourselves. To reject ourselves leads to sickness, dissolution, and death, spiritual and physical…

The crux of Willard’s message is this: “We cannot be thankful for who we are without being thankful for our parents, through whom our life came.” Essentially, our ability to love and accept ourselves will always be tied up with our ability to love and accept our parents. If we want to feel gratitude toward ourselves, we must first feel gratitude toward the people who are most directly responsible for our existence. This doesn’t mean that we are grateful for everything about them, or everything they did. We don’t need to be grateful for the ways they wounded us, or the ways they fell short of our expectations. But we must learn how to see them as human beings, and to be grateful at the very least for their existence. Because if they never existed, then neither would we. So if there is anything in our life that we can be grateful for, then we must also be grateful to our parents for making our life possible.

Overcoming Obstacles to Gratitude

Why is it so hard to feel gratitude toward our parents? One reason, perhaps, is that we are afraid that if we admit gratitude we might have to let go of our sense of being wronged. And there is something addicting about the feeling of being wronged. (Why else would it be so hard to let it go?) Even if, in our rational mind, we long to be free of baggage from our past, there is still a part of ourselves that clings to our victim-identity and seeks to protect it at all cost.

But what if it’s true that “to reject and be angry with them is to reject and be angry with ourselves”? What if accepting them for who they are is a prerequisite for accepting ourselves for who we are? What if forgiving them is the only way we’ll be able to forgive ourselves when, down the road, we inevitably make some of the same mistakes? What if the resentment that we feel towards them is only contributing to the load of unnecessary suffering that weighs down on us?

Ok ok, so the problem is becoming clear. We get that we should feel gratitude, and that it might even be good for us. But at the same time, gratitude has a strong emotional component, and you can’t make yourself feel something you don’t feel. If you find yourself in this situation – wanting to feel gratitude, but unable to get there – try the following exercise. This exercise does not ask you to think about your parents, so don’t feel any pressure to do so. In fact, if you’re able to focus on other things, all the better.

  1. Begin by sitting comfortably, with a straight back, if possible. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
  2. Think about your day. (If it’s still early in the day, you can think about yesterday.) What are three things you’re grateful for? Write them down.
  3. Now think about your life in general. This time, try to think of at least 10 things you’re grateful for. Write them down.
  4. Now think about the whole world and all of existence. Brainstorm 10 more things that you’re grateful for. Write these things down as well. (If you’re getting stuck, check out this list for inspiration.)
  5. Look back over your whole list and circle or highlight the items that evoke an emotional response in you.***
  6. Choose 2 or 3 of the items you marked and spend a few minutes meditating on each one. Close your eyes, and soak in the feeling of gratitude. Remember to breathe deeply and sit with an upright posture (or lie flat on your back).

***If you’re not used to paying attention to the way emotions show up in your body, let me explain how this works. There are certain items on your list that your brain will tell you are the most important or the “best” things to be grateful for. These might be things like your spouse or your job or your home. But for whatever reason, those things might not actually do anything for you emotionally in this moment. There’s no shame in this. It certainly doesn’t mean that you aren’t grateful for those things, or that you don’t really love your spouse. It just means that emotions are a bit unpredictable and certain things hit us differently in different moments. So try to lay down any preconceived judgments you have about the items on your list, and simply pay attention to what’s happening in your body as you think about each item. You might feel relaxed and at ease, you might notice yourself smiling or sighing with contentment, you might feel a chemical change in your stomach, or the releasing of pressure in your chest. However it shows up for you, it will probably be obvious that what you are feeling is positive.***

Hopefully this exercise ushered you into the emotional space of gratitude. Now that you are here, it may be easier to extend that gratitude to your parents. Here are a few ways to test this out:

  • Look back over your list and, for each item, say: “Thank you for making this possible by giving me the gift of life.”
  • Try to think of some things from your childhood that you’re grateful for.
  • Consider what strengths you have as an adult because of experiences in your past.

If you noticed an immediate emotional shift away from gratitude and toward something else (e.g. anger, resentment, resistance), no shame. Just being able to be aware of that shift is an important step.

If you make a practice of cultivating gratitude in general in your life, that gratitude will eventually reach your parents. This is the other way we can interpret Willard’s words. One way is to say: I need to first be grateful to my parents before I can truly be grateful for myself. But the other way is this: If I develop a genuine sense of gratitude for my life, that gratitude will inevitably spill over onto my parents.

So in your practice of gratitude, start exactly where you are, with whatever comes easiest. There’s nothing to lose, and much to gain.

If you’re interested in more practical exercises that gently lead you closer to a healthy relationship with your parents, consider joining our October cohort focusing on the parent/child relationship. The registration deadline is 9/23. Find more details here.

Reflection Questions

  1. What do you think about Willard’s claim that your well-being is tied up with your view of your parents?
  2. What did you notice in yourself as you did the gratitude exercise?
  3. How far did your gratitude extend toward your parents? Where did you hit a roadblock?

Ready for more? Find Part 6 of this series here: The Gift of Intergenerational Dialogue