Grief and Gratitude: some notes

by Jeff Oaks

We don’t do grief well, my family. Gratitude either. Both of them require a level of vulnerability we don’t trust. Anger is much easier, especially if it’s combined with righteousness. 


I saw this the other day and of course posted it to my FB wall. Four Rituals a Neuroscientist recommends to fight depression basically. The short version is this:

1. Think of what you’re grateful for. 

2. Label your feelings

3. Make “good enough” decisions to act.

4. Touch people and animals
I noticed I had no problems with 2 through 4, but gratitude makes me itchy, uncomfortable. What’s the difference between it and privilege? Would making a list of your privileges be as good for you neuro-chemically as it seems gratitude is? 


“The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable …”

All these quotations are from Alex Korb’s The Upward Spiral. I’m trying to feel for the difference between being grateful “toward others” (who have helped one see or grow in some way, I guess) and being grateful for “the things” you own as in

“One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.”


Why I’m interested in the difference between gratitude and privilege is a good question. There have been enormous crimes committed in the name of privilege of late, masked as a number of things–self-defense, social need, love, adherence to religious dogma. I have been, as I want to think anyone with a heart and mind is, reconsidering many things I’ve likely been taking for granted, namely, what is a privilege I want merely to hold on to because it makes me feel safe, what is something to be grateful for because it opens me up to change? 


Once I would’ve crushed without thinking the small white spider who just showed up at my elbow as I write this in the coffeehouse; spiders make me feel unsafe. But this time I didn’t kill it. I looked at it. It’s beautifully made, a thing I’ve always thought about spiders. I watched it tap and walk around the edge of the table and then disappear underneath. I felt the restless sense I always feel around spiders when they disappear around me. There is no way it can hurt me, I know. I keep writing; I put it in my writing. Am I grateful to it? 


I have a student with a theory–that those people who have to work for the things they have respect them more than people who are so rich they can instantly replace whatever they lose or break. It’s not a terrible theory to hold, but I couldn’t help but point out to him that whenever he describes the things he has worked hard for, he invariably portrays himself as guarding those things, as being obsessed with keeping them safe, as terrified of loss. Think of what an advantage the rich have then, I said. They don’t have to waste energy on preservation. And think about how trapped you can become, spending all your energy to preserve the fruits of your labor, if that fruit is only things. 


Somewhere there’s a story I read in which a beggar and a king both beg the Buddha to teach them. Everyone assumes that this will be a story in which the beggar will show himself, through his suffering, to be the king’s moral superior, but then the Buddha tests them both. He sets the king’s whole kingdom and magnificent robes on fire. Then he sets the beggar’s sole possession, his loincloth, on fire. The king lets it all burn. The beggar screams and runs away. 


Gratitude can be a way not to grieve. Gratitude can be a way to get to grief, which is why my mother poo-pooed it. She hated to feel grief. The avoidance of it was a major part of her life’s work. She told me that once. She called me as I was walking my dog along the river one evening and said, “I just realized what I’ve been doing my whole life is avoiding grief!” She had the sound of a woman suddenly standing in sunlight. I think I said Congratulations!, thinking then that she was pleased to have arrived at such an insight.  “But at seventy-six, what the hell am I supposed to do with knowledge?” she said, clearly at a loss.

Luckily for us, and I wish I could have told her then, writes Alex Kolb, “It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.” 
I do remember thinking that that moment of realization did help her later, when she was first diagnosed with cancer, and even later, when it was clear her time was limited. She’d long gotten rid of anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary in terms of things, so why not all the old fears and angers too? She was so grateful to have two doting sons at the end. As for grief, she worried more about ours than hers.