Balls of Gratitude: an exercise in reframing loss
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
After endings, something strange happens. Even if we’ve worked through the grief of the loss and reached a point of acceptance, we often get stuck thinking of That Lovely Thing Lost with negativity: sadness, bitterness, pain. But what about all the good stuff that came before – the joys of a relationship (that ended in divorce), the laughter with a parent (who’s died), the familiar comfort of the family home (now sold)? The most recent event – the ending – seems to linger with disproportionate importance.
As my psychologist friend Shan mused yesterday, perhaps our anxious, negative thoughts dominate because we’re wired for stone-age survival. Those of our ancestors who habitually fretted about food supply, safe shelter and the whereabouts of predators were more likely to survive snow-ins and carnivores than those who were playing dominoes.
I’ve lost, I’ve lost, I’ve lost, goes the thought loop. And yes, you have. But you’ve also loved, enjoyed and been blessed. I believe it’s possible not to let the negative feelings associated with a loss overshadow everything positive That Lovely Thing Lost brought us. It’s a matter of shifting focus back to before the loss.
One day I asked myself, ‘Why am I holding on to negativity about all the good things in my life that ended? Time-wise, the ending was just a fraction of that experience; that total chapter was 99% happiness.’ Wanting to retrain my brain, I decided to make a picture of my good past experiences. Over two pages in an A4 journal, I draw a coloured ball for each part of my life that had brought me happiness. People, places, hobbies, whole chapters of life were represented by a beautiful ball, and inside each I wrote a few words summarizing what I’d loved and gained. Then I added some balls from the now – new, ongoing things that haven’t yet ended. The title: ‘Parts of my life I’m very grateful for.’
Now, when I think of the Swartland farm where my mother lived for many years and to which I may never return, my first thought is, ‘Wasn’t it fabulous? Weren’t we lucky?’ The sting of the loss will always be there, because we’ll never have those exact family gatherings again, but I feel I’ve reached the correct viewpoint, which is this: ‘Goddamn, it was a great experience.’ I refer to my picture regularly.
It’s all about perspective, and that can take practice. Whether it’s a marriage, a career or life that’s ended, we need not let the feeling of the ending perpetually overshadow the feeling of the during. List the good times and celebrate them. Gratitude, I’ve discovered, is an antidote to loss.