I always saw myself as the type to scowl when asked to count my blessings. I don’t think acknowledging the positive is an act of will, but rather of perception – we either have that perspective or we don’t. If some see a glass half full, some half empty, and engineers see enough space for a redundant system, I see my own agency. I must have spilled the first half. Or drank it down without noticing. Greedily, thoughtlessly. And anyway, it’s my glass so it’s nobody else’s business how much I’ve had to drink.
Before Dan died and I was just an ordinary depressive (now my diagnosis is “complicated grief” which will probably be the title of the memoir I’m not writing) I used to hate when people urged me to count my blessings. I heard victim-blaming in that encouragement. Sure, your life has its problems, but it’s your own fault if you dwell on them instead of appreciating what you do have. And at the same time that it was my fault for not seeing the bright side of things, yet it was also everybody else’s sworn duty to point out the bright side to me. Hey kid, take some personal responsibility. I order you to do so.
Go ahead, mull that one for a minute.
After I lost Dan, literally no one asked me to count my blessings. I guess they knew how it would sound – adding credence to my theory that it’s more about perception than will. If I could have willed positive happy thoughts before, through my haze of a genuine case of moderate to severe depression, then you’d think I should have been able to do the same thing through the fog of complicated grief, but nobody asked, as if it wouldn’t “seem” right; “sound” right. The sunny optimists had a point of no return, apparently. I don’t know why they got to pick where it was; why it was acceptable to urge positive thinking when one thing sucked but not ok when another thing did. What threw the switch? Was it because people thought I wasn’t really hurting when I only had depression? Why did they think I could “help myself” out of depression but not out of grief? Were they of the opinion that one was real and the other hadn’t been? That one was, perhaps, my fault where the other was a tragedy foisted upon me? And was it therefore my legitimate victim status as widow that excused me from being required to look on the bright side, or to count my blessings?
I didn’t ask for either pain. I had no way to see either of them coming; to brace for impact.
Seeking help for depression was an open invitation for the non-professional therapists in my life to offer solutions, coping mechanisms, “help.” After all, I “wanted” to get better, didn’t I? And they had some ideas. They had stories. They had read a book. The answer always seemed to be, it’s up to you. But they never tried that when I developed a bad case of complicated grief. Nobody expected me to want to get better. Apparently there are limits, only I’m not in charge of deciding them.
Consider this extract from the self-help pamphlet entitled “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, M.D. which encourages a positive attitude towards change:
…I realize change really can lead you to a new and better place, although you’re afraid it won’t at the time. I remember a time when our son was a sophomore in high school. My husband’s job required us to move from Illinois to Vermont and our son was upset because he had to leave his friends. He was a star swimmer and the high school in Vermont had no swim team. So he was angry with us for making him move. As it turned out, he fell in love with the Vermont mountains, took up skiing, skied on his college team and now lives happily in Colorado. If we had all enjoyed this Cheese story together, over a cup of hot chocolate, we could have saved our family a lot of stress.
You’re not losing a husband. You’re gaining valuable closet space! Have some tea and stop fretting.
That young man had a genuine grief. A loss of friends, a loss of identity, a helpless sense of being a possession to be relocated like a repotted plant. His mother rightly felt anxious about it, agonized over it. And then someone told her that if she had only laughed about it, or been prescient enough to know it would all work out, or introduced caffeine and sugar into the equation, nobody would have been upset. Will power, cocoa powder, it’s all one.
Nobody had any right to ask him (or his mother) to take a positive attitude towards that particular wrenching change. If they couldn’t for my loss, they couldn’t for his, but they did, and do, and continue to do so, and it drives me crazy.
The only thing that drives me more crazy on the subject is when people ask me how old he was or what he died of. Apparently the line is even sharper if the dead person is “too young” (I’m working on that calculus) or if he died of Obvious External Evil like Cancer or A Drunk Driver, Murder or Malpractice. The person who loses a child to leukemia will NEVER be asked to count her blessings, but the middle-aged childless woman whose husband was after all eleven years older and didn’t he, (you know) drink? might be.
And with all that, here I am a year and a half later and I think I can see the upside of counting the blessings. Right now, when no-one expects me to, when I would be forgiven for failing to, I can see the virtue of appreciating the things I do have. Of course, in the Cheese story, appreciation for what one has means arrogance and blind comfort; A Failure To Notice That There Won’t Be Cheese Forever and so Don’t Cry To Us When It’s Gone.
Pass the brie.