I began my journey towards a grateful life sitting in the parking lot of a funeral home.
On the back of an envelope containing my cable bill, I scrawled random thoughts; the serene beauty of the lake, the divers, his friends, the cool rain that mingled with my tears as I stood on the shoreline, the 4th of July fireworks that illuminated the night sky, as if heaven was welcoming my beautiful son home.
And so began what I call the most awake years of my life. My 23-year-old son Stephen was dead, and I was shattered into a million pieces. I was groundless, looking desperately for the rug that had been pulled from beneath my normal life, only to find that someone had taken the damn floor too.
So I surrendered to it. I had always thought I was a fixer, a woman of strength. But this time, I had nothing. Sitting on a bump in the sand at the edge of Jordan Lake, my life was stripped bare. I looked to the heavens and wondered if I would survive this pain, and begged for help. Grieving with gratitude was the answer I received.
It seemed counter-intuitive to even think of thankfulness at the darkest moment of my life. But I knew this was to be my path. From that moment, I knew that this was a conversation that I needed to have with others about how we perceive and journey through grief and loss.
So I started to write. My younger son Brendan and I agreed that if we could find "one little thing" each day to be thankful for, we would get through this. Each day we would look for simple blessings and I would write about it. On particularly difficult days, I could not even completely inhale because of the physical ache in my chest from the pain of losing my beautiful boy. So I would give thanks that this broken heart of mine continued to beat.
As the days, weeks and months passed, our list of tiny blessings continued to grow, bringing flickers of light and hope along with it. We found we couldn't just limit it to one little thing any longer. Blessings were sprouting up all over the place. Butterflies, belly laughs with snorts included, fresh strawberries, naps, a letter from Stephen's friend, birds, chats with my son or a moment of normalcy with my husband.
It did not change the pain of the loss. But it did alleviate some of the suffering. I started to see that all these one little things were actually the big things that really gave meaning to my life. This path of gratitude was healing me, and tethering me to the present moment as I grieved. And in the present moment, I was okay.
I decided to invite others to the conversation, and through the power of social media, connected with thousands of people from all over the world on their own personal grief journey. Each person's grief was as individual as their fingerprint. Some grief was related to the death of someone dear; others suffered the ending of a relationship. I befriended people struggling against the grip of addiction, grieving the loss of their very sense of self. I have been humbled by their strength, and honored that they decided to walk with me for a while, looking for the simple blessings that they could tie together each day. Together, we've discovered that we can still be happy, even when things are less than perfect. We are having a new conversation about grief.
Six years later, I am often at a loss for words when people ask me how I feel about how much this has grown. I have released two books, and our Facebook group Just One Little Thing has over 120,000 members from over fifty countries speaking over forty languages. I like to call our members JOLT'ers, and I consider each and every one of them my family. They show up each day to give thanks, to talk about the good things happening in the world, and to share how they are making a difference in their neck of the woods.
It's a little petri dish of humanity, and it is beautiful. Nothing thrills me more than watching a man from Ireland encourage a mother from Ohio, or a woman from British Columbia realize that she is working through the same grief as a young man in Egypt.
There is a man from Chicago who has applied the concept of JOLT to his work at an addictions center. There is a teacher in Africa who shared the message of JOLT to the children in her dirt floor classroom. Even horses have become JOLT'ers, with Equine Therapists sharing the message in Pennsylvania.
This happened because I decided to listen to that quiet voice within, and allow the transformative power of grief to guide me. My purpose now is to tell others that not only can they be okay, but that they find hope and happiness after hardship.
I now look at each day as a gift.
With each step I take and every ripple of hope that continues to circle the globe, I feel Stephen smiling.
And that is one big thing.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.