Encouraging the gratitude reflex

The word 'caring'

Richard Littledale, whose wife Fiona passed away under Sue Ryder's care in November 2017, this week blogs about how fostering gratitude, and actively thanking those who helped you during dark times, is helping him through his grief. "Not everyone will feel either able or inclined to do it, but for me it has been therapeutic," he says.

Last week – maybe unwisely – I watched a programme all about cancer stories and faith. The impact upon me was entirely predictable. However, the voice that lingered with me the most was that of the presenter whose mum had died some 12 years before the programme was made.

"I never thanked the cancer nurse at the time who did so much for all of us," he said. He went on to say that he had looked and looked for her in the intervening years, but without success. In a touching moment, he thanked the cancer nurse he was interviewing on the ‘lost’ nurse’s behalf.

An anchor in a sea of emotions

One of the tremendous frustrations about the emotional ‘climate’ in the early months of bereavement is that you can neither predict it nor control it. Just as you were powerless in the face of the cancer that took the person you loved, so now you are powerless to change the emotional weather.

You might be enjoying a peaceful day under a clear blue sky, when all of a sudden a black storm cloud of sorrow rolls in. You might be tucked up cosily in the house and coping with your own company, when a host of regrets start tapping at the windows, like tree branches blown by the wind.

In these circumstances, intentional gratitude can be a kind of anchor. It stands as a fixed point that you have decided to erect, come what may.

Starting small, and growing

For me, it started during Fiona’s last months when I took a couple of days to compile a list of 69 reasons to be thankful for the NHS, which I then published on the 69th birthday of the NHS. This year, I hope to add another for the 70th.

In the first few days after Fiona’s death, I took the time to drop a note to the doctor’s surgery and another to her wonderful Sue Ryder Nurse.

Now it has become a habit to find any forum or any excuse where I can possibly sing the praises of those who work in healthcare. Once you start, it is not hard to find either people or reasons to thank them.

The thanks don’t need to be effusive, and no gifts are required – just a few honest, positive and hopeful words will do. Not everyone will feel either able or inclined to do it, but for me it has been therapeutic.

Not only that, but because I choose to do it, it makes me feel a little less at the mercy of the emotional weather.

Moving on to other things

Some will find that the impetus I've described leads on to other things. They start to volunteer at their local hospice or join their local Sue Ryder fundraising group.

Doing these things can never change the past, but they can change the future for the next person who needs specialist cancer care, and the next one after that.

The key here is that we choose to do these things. Circumstances and emotions in these early months are so often foisted upon us; establishing a habit of thanks is to put up an umbrella against this emotional rain.

For me, it has also led to the foundation of a new charity, The Fiona Fund, but that’s another story…

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If you have been affected by bereavement or are caring for someone at the end of their life, please reach out to others in the same situation.

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Richard Littledale
Richard Littledale