Little girl with bubbles - In the midst of grief

Excerpted from The Grateful Life: The Secret to Happiness and the Science of Contentment, a book that outlines the benefits that gratitude can bring us on a daily basis and teaches readers how to cultivate gratitude. 

The best way to express our gratitude for life is by being fully alive, not hiding from life in a corner, or watching life pass us by. The biggest fear we have is not the fear of dying, but the fear to be alive, to be ourselves, to say what we feel, to ask for what we want, to say yes when we want to say yes, and no when we want to say no. To express what is in our hearts is to be truly alive. If we pretend to be what we are not, how can we be truly alive? —Don Miguel Ruiz

Mary Beth’s story

A life spent camping out at a hospital bedside, holding your elderly parent’s hand and your worries and stress for their illness in your heart and gut, can take a toll.

I know firsthand. During the last six years, I lived on call 24/7. It started with racing to the ER after emergency calls about my father, then my mother’s heart surgery and remarkable recovery, and a year later, suddenly and swiftly, her serious illness.

The fall of 2012 was the culmination of months of doctors’ appointments, followed by four months of showing up daily at my mother’s hospital bedside for the new punch of bad news from the latest battery of tests. It was a rigid and heartbreaking existence. It’s hard to keep smiling and joyful when you’re learning each day to let go. You wake up thinking the new test will nail what’s going on, but daily you feel like you are tethered to a rope that is fraying fast from a slippery slope.

In the end, after four months in two hospitals, the diagnosis: the serial killer cancer had stalked my mom as a target and won. In the dark GI lab at Loyola Medical Center, the doctor pulled me into “the room / closet” to tell me Mom had months to live, if that. The cancer was untreatable.

Where do you find gratefulness in that?

As someone who has spent a chunk of life in recent years immersed personally and professionally in the world of caregiving, I know there are volumes of books about how to care for yourself before the bubbling inferno of stress buys you a hospital bed too. I’ve written one and read most of them. But looking back now at the experience, as raw as it still is, I discovered what pulled me through, beyond my passionate commitment and deep-felt desire to be at both my parents’ sides helping them live to the end.

Play!

Play opened the path from brokenness to the search for light in every corner of every moment I was experiencing. It helped me tap into a new level of consciousness. Play unplugged my fear, letting me shed tears of sorrow and joy, and gave me hope and reverence for the precious moments spent at my parents’ sides.

Let me be upfront and reveal that I didn’t discover play purposefully. It actually happened by accident. But it turns out that play opens the door to bliss and to gratefulness. According to Kathy Sprinkle, founder of BlissHabits.com, adventure and play are one of the 13 habits to uncover what you are grateful for and thus turn up your bliss. Here is how I tapped into the power of play to discover what I am most grateful for during a sad time marked by leavings and letting go.

Preschooler at heart

At heart, I’m a preschooler, and I was lucky to have a pint-sized companion at my side: my granddaughter, Rylee, who just turned three. In the middle of this world of caring for my parents towards the ends of their lives, Rylee’s parents lived with me before and for a short while after her birth. How wonderful it was that the empty nest I was preparing for as my youngest left for college never came to fruition. It is hard to imagine my life before Rylee and the joy she brought during a challenging time.

For the last three years, during the chaos and challenges of my parents’ health crises, I sneaked time to play, taking Rylee to weekly story time at Barnes & Noble and on multiple treks to the dolphin show at the Shedd Aquarium, splashing in the fountains at the Chicago Botanic Garden, picnicking at the park, and, as the wind chill hovered in the single digits in Chicago, ice skating—our new adventure.

Child on ice - In the midst of grief

In the middle of being surprised by dolphins jumping and spinning in the air, of tossing my shoes and running barefoot in the garden fountain, and of sitting cross-legged listening to the story time “teacher” share the latest antics of Fancy Nancy, a part of me lost in the sorrow and worry disappeared. In its place, I rediscovered the joy that play opens in our lives. Suddenly, I could see all of what was going on—caring for and loving both my parents as they lived their last moments, and spending time filled with the pure wonder of a toddler, opened me up to a gratefulness I had never known before.

Play shifted my lens. It filled me with memories of my childhood and spending times just like this with both my parents, who introduced me to the sheer pleasure of holding a good book and entering a new world through its pages. I was grateful for parents who let me gather my friends and build a tree house in our backyard. It became a childhood home-away-from-home sanctuary for the 60 kids under 12 on our block. I remembered with thankfulness my mom driving me and my friends to the skating rink, where most winters we practically lived all day, racing around the track and sipping hot chocolate.

I discovered, as Melody Beattie says, how play and gratitude unlock the fullness of life. “It turns what we have into enough, and more,” she says. “It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Through play, I could let go with love of the fact that my parents would no longer physically be a part of my life. But I learned that they would live on in the books they had taught me to love, in the spirit of playfulness, and in the joy that Rylee would bring to my life as I watched her discover herself and her creativity through play.

And guess what. Apparently these opportunities to be playful are just what the doctors ordered. When it comes to stress, more giggles and playfulness are the antidote, according to Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play.

Play can’t take away the stress or worry about a loved one, but data is mounting about the positive things it can do.

“Play is particularly important during periods that are sustainably stressful,” writes Brown, who also is the author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul (Penguin). Based in Carmel, California, Brown’s nonprofit institute compiles research on play and provides speakers to discuss the importance of play with educational organizations and Fortune 500 companies.

Now, as my caregiving duties have transitioned to trying to gently care for the physical possessions of my parents and spending time on the phone on hold with life insurance companies, banks, and others to try to finalize what is final, I look back with greater understanding of how these small escapes were so vital.

I opened one of the boxes of my mom’s belongings yesterday to discover the folder filled with photos of Rylee my sister had printed out so she would be able to stay in touch with her great-granddaughter (the wonders of Facebook). Many of them are glimpses of these adventures.

Joy and gratefulness again, in the middle of a challenging task.

Grateful life practice

Find a way to add play into your life every day:
» Take a walk in the woods with your dogs
» Make a trek to the park with a pint-sized pal, or hit the swings by yourself and tap into the joy within the child inside
» Head for the beach and splash in the waves
» Grab your ice skates and find a skating rink
» Pull out the Scrabble board, or construct a puzzle
» Register for a Zumba or dance class

Mary Beth Sammons is a “gratitude entrepreneur” who creates new reasons each day to be thankful. She’s an award-winning journalist and author of eight books about making a difference, including Second Acts That Change Lives: Making a Difference in the World (Conari Press) and We Carry Each Other: Getting Through Life’s Toughest TimesNina Lesowitz is an award-winning marketing professional who runs Spinergy Group, which represents authors, corporate clients, and non-profits. She, along with Sammons, co-authored the bestselling Living Life as a Thank You and What Would You Do if You Knew You Could Not Fail?: How to Transform Fear into Courage.

Excerpted from The Grateful Life: The Secret to Happiness and the Science of Contentment by Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons, 978-1-936740-89-5, with permission from Viva Editions, www.vivaeditions.com.

image 1: sweet, happy, smiling via Shutterstock; image 2: Mothers hand via Shutterstock