In a private grief support group on Facebook, we had a recent discussion about the idea of Thanksgiving. A few of the participants said that they couldn’t imagine feeling thankful at this point in their lives.

That idea struck me because, as I’ve previously written, my grieving process has been heavily colored by the idea of gratitude. Because somehow the way I’ve come to think about it, there’s a subtle but meaningful difference between thankfulness and gratitude. To me, thankfulness suggests that you have someone (usually implying a higher power, to which I don’t relate) you are at least a little indebted to for whatever you are experiencing, while in my parlance feeling grateful suggests you have appreciation for and perspective about what you do have even in recognition of what you don’t have.

When I looked this up online, I found what seemed to be the opposite interpretations. For example, the Cambridge Dictionaries Online website (admittedly a source for British English which may indicate slightly different usage from the American English) includes this distinction:

We use grateful to talk about how we feel when someone is kind to us or does us a favour


We usually use thankful when we are relieved that something unpleasant or dangerous didn’t happen

Yet my anecdotal observation is that the broad use of the word “grateful” to refer to a sense of appreciation without specific recipient has grown. On a daily basis I see people in my social feeds talking about gratitude, and there’s usually no implication of directly thanking a specific person.

But back to grief, and feeling grateful or thankful or not. I certainly don’t even mean to suggest that anyone SHOULD feel grateful if the idea has no relevance to them; it’s up to everyone to process life and grief and everything however they see fit.

I’m just suggesting that there can be ways to reconcile tragedy and loss with the broad concept of gratitude as appreciation and perspective without resorting to religious belief or a “higher power.” The word may be off, but the feeling is genuine.

In my case, for example, I have plenty of specific people to be grateful to. I have many specific things to be grateful for. I also have significant losses that challenge the idea of appreciation. But loss is an ongoing attribute of life, and it may be our most consistent challenge to seek fullness in the constant reshaping of it.

So gratitude to me means a combination of a few things. Whatever is present with me now that I can find joy in, I want to appreciate. And I always want to carry with me a sense of satisfaction derived from the joy and love I’ve been able to experience, even with people and things that are no longer with me. I appreciate the ways I’ve been shaped by the people and experiences in my life. And I particularly recognize and feel strengthened by the preparation that I have for the rest of my life in the perspective I gain from surviving difficult losses.

All of this makes me feel something that I have termed “gratitude.” It is not thanks given to a creator, because I just don’t relate to the idea of one. But it is, at least partly, thanks given to my friends and family and everyone I love for everything I love about them and everything they love about me and the ways we are able to show love to each other. It’s close enough and it calls for celebration. And I sincerely hope you can find something to celebrate today, too. Cheers.

Thankful or Grateful?
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