When I was a little girl, our family attended a friend’s party every Christmas Eve. It was a magical event—sparkling decorations, trays filled homemade Christmas cookies, crowds of happy people, and holiday carols sung with a guitar.
It was also—from the perspective of a small child who was anxious to go home and open presents—very long. Sometimes painfully so.
After the cookies were eaten and the songs were sung, the adults liked to linger and talk for what seemed like hours. I remember sitting by our friend’s tree, gazing at their gifts, fidgeting restlessly and longing for something to do.
There was one reprieve my younger brother and me. We were each given one small gift from the hostess. I looked forward to that gift not only with the usual Christmas anticipation, but with a sort of desperation, hoping that it would be something entertaining for the long wait while the adults socialized.
The year that I was about five years old, I opened my gift and found a shiny, white ballerina dress for a doll. It was the most beautiful doll dress I had ever seen.
I threw it across the room and yelled, “I hate it!”
In the awkward silence that followed, I realized something. I didn’t hate the dress. It was beautiful. Under other circumstances I would have loved it. I was frustrated because I had been focused on a very specific outcome—I wanted a toy I could play with at that moment to alleviate boredom, and I didn’t have a doll with me that could wear the dress.
I couldn’t appreciate the gift in front of me because it didn’t match the expectation in my mind.
I apologized, of course, and the next Christmas I brought a toy with me to the party. But the lesson of that night has unfolded in broader ways in the intervening years.
I have slowly learned that the underlying principle—accepting life for what it is and choosing to grateful even when it isn’t what I expected—brings healing to even the most complicated and painful circumstances.
It’s All A Gift
Fast forward a few years.
I was a young mother struggling with financial adversity. Our family had recently moved to a new state. We were renting an apartment while waiting for our old home to sell, except it wasn’t happening.
We had had the house under contract 5 different times, and each time the sale had failed. Then the water heater malfunctioned in our absence, causing a flood that required a trip home and expensive repairs.
Then the insurance company didn’t want to provide continued coverage because the home was vacant.
Then the mortgage company discovered we were no longer living in the home and threatened to foreclose, since the terms of our loan specified that the house be owner-occupied.
And all this time we were paying both rent and mortgage payments, which was draining our limited savings.
One day I felt so beaten down and discouraged that I fell on my knees and just cried.
And in the midst of those tears, I felt quiet, firm inspiration speaking to me,
It’s all a gift.
The message was so unexpected that it stopped me short.
Then the memory of my childhood Christmas lesson came back to me. I could relate to the part about being disappointed, but I couldn’t see how financial stress compared to a pretty doll dress. So, I asked myself what beautiful thing could possibly come of this difficult chain of experiences.
When I let myself look past my fear and frustration, I came up with a whole list of beautiful things. None of them were the things that I had had in mind we began the process of selling our home, so I hadn’t really thought about them before.
Patience. Humility. Faith. Compassion. An increased connection to the family and friends who reached out with kindness to help us in various ways.
Most of the things that really matter in life don’t come when your carefully made plans unfold on schedule. They come in the in-between places. They come from the times when you feel lost and discouraged. They come from the times that you have to make a choice to believe in love and hope and goodness, even though the world isn’t speaking those things back to you.
They are the perfect gift that you aren’t prepared to receive.
The hard times are not an interruption to what life is supposed to be. They are the heart of it. Those are the times that allow us to become our best selves.
Of course, that’s easy to say when the challenge is small, or even moderate. But what about those experiences in life that leave you feeling gutted? When life slams you to the pavement so hard that you aren’t even sure you can keep breathing? Those are the times you need gratitude the most.
When Gratitude Isn’t Pretty: Making it Real
Let’s be real.
When the hardest times of your life hit, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows.
Being grateful for a Christmas gift you didn’t want is one thing. Being grateful for the loss of a loved one or a traumatic experience is something else.
When the love of my life was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I might have spit in your face if you suggested to me that I should be grateful.
(Okay, probably not really. But I would have felt like it.)
And in retrospect, I stand by that sentiment. Too often well-meaning friends oversimplify deep pain.
Look on the bright side. It’s all for the best. Stay positive.
None of those statements allow pain to be heard and listened to, so following that advice could at best serve as a band-aid over a gaping wound.
More often, though, glossing over grief does real damage by preventing the healing that coud have occurred if those feelings were acknowleged and processed.
The kind of healing that real gratitude brings is deeper, more raw, and more real.
It isn’t glossing over the truth with platitudes. It is letting yourself feel the pain, listen to it, and learn from it.
It’s understanding that you don’t have to hide the pain or cover it up or try to force it away before it is ready to go.
It’s allowing space for sadness and anger, but also choosing to appreciate the unexpected gifts that come with even the deepest hurt.
It’s trusting healing to unfold within you as you open to your experiences.
And it’s realizing that there is space in your heart for sadness and joy, simultaneously, and choosing to live deep enough to experience both.
The Choice That Changes Everything
Some experiences are too big, too important, too impactful to leave you unchanged. I will never again be the person who I was before my husband died.
There’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t go back in time and magically change the results of his CT scan or the way that his body responded to chemotherapy. I can’t change how much he meant to me, or to our six children. I can’t change how devastating his loss was for all of us.
The only thing I have control over is how that experience will change me for the future. I can become stronger, gentler, wiser, and more compassionate. I can develop an increased appreciation for the people I care about, and for life itself.
None of that will bring my husband back. And honestly, given the choice, I would pick him over personal growth a thousand times over.
But I don’t have that choice. And staring relentlessly at a door that will never open would be enough to destroy me.
So, I am learning to make the choice that changes everything.
Each day I look for gifts, and I choose to be open to receiving them.