Realising the Important Things in Life Before it is Too Late
Rob was furious. He had spent the past three months frustratingly chasing doctors about his wife’s medical condition. She had a feeling that things were not right, but months of investigations and medical tests did not yield any conclusive results. Rob and his wife knew that something was wrong with her, and felt they needed to fight the medical establishment to be heard. The past three months felt like an eternity, and depleted them of all their energy as well as physical, mental and emotional resources.
Eventually, she received a diagnosis. It was not the relief they had hoped for. Somehow, desperately chasing a result had given them something to focus on, and they had lost track of the possibility that the diagnosis they were seeking would not be a favourable one. His wife had been diagnosed with a rare cancer, which had spread into the bloodstream when diagnosed.
I cannot begin to describe how the room felt when Rob first entered. His fury with the medical fraternity was palpable. He was absolutely livid that they had wasted three months fighting and insisting on more and more tests, and these three months had been stolen from them. Surely something could have been done if the doctors had diagnosed this earlier? There was no known treatment and his wife’s condition was terminal.
Rob repeatedly relayed his desperation, frustration and anger. He seemed to be stuck in the dramas surrounding the leadup to this dreadful diagnosis, and was not able to let go of it. Despite the large decisions that needed to be made surrounding his wife’s palliative care, he was trapped in the fury and memory of the preceding months.
He ranted. I listened. He raged. I listened. He clung on to his fury. I made space for this.
This is a common scenario in a psychotherapeutic setting. The job of the psychotherapist is to make space for whatever is arising in the client. The difference in the setting that I work in, a centre where I help patients who have cancer and their carers, is that the work often happens a lot faster. People who come to see me are facing the uncertainty of their mortality (or the mortality of their loved one), and properly guided, this gives them impetus to move through their emotions and come to a deeper understanding of the important things in life, in a more efficient manner.
I encouraged Rob to allow the anger and frustration to settle. What lay beneath this anger and frustration? He reported sadness, the fear of his wife suffering, and the uncertainty of what was to come. He talked around this, and I listened and created more opportunities and space for these difficult experiences to simply be there. He talked some more and we allowed these emotions to ebb and flow, and sometimes even settle.
‘What lays beneath this?’ I enquired. We explored this together and found a sense of frustration with the lack of control of the situation. We also found a deep love that Rob felt towards his wife.
These are the realities that we all face. Irrespective of the sometimes very difficult emotions we experience, something greater is at the foundation of them. If we tap into these more primordial foundations, we open ourselves to learn the lessons they can teach.
I taught Rob how to tap into the depths of these feelings. In doing this, he started realising what was important and what was not. Directing his anger at the doctors who did not diagnose his wife for three months was not going to help his situation, but rather make him feel worse. It was not going to help his wife whatsoever, either. They only had a short time left with each other and his anger was upsetting her.
Similarly, placing his attention on his lack of control of the situation also led to a greater sense of frustration in him, which made him and his wife feel dejected. Time was not on their side, and spending their time and energy on things that made them feel worse was not how Rob wanted to remember his last weeks with his wife.
I suggested for Rob to explore gratitude. I taught him a simple daily gratitude practice, and it was through this practice that he managed to really tune into the love he felt for his wife. Although his anger and frustration were more palpable for him at the time, I encouraged Rob to use the daily gratitude practice to make the choice in each moment of each day to stay within this relatively more nebulous, yet powerful, truth of his love for his wife.
From the time of our session the very next week, I witnessed a transformation in Rob’s and his wife’s lives that was nothing short of miraculous. Tuning into his love for his wife opened to a multitude of feelings other than anger and frustration. Yes, there were feelings of sadness, but there were also feelings of gratitude of the cups of tea they had together in their back garden, the giggles they shared as they watched their dog chasing its tail, the wonderful smells of springtime, and the enjoyment of seeing his wife sleeping peacefully. There was a poignant beauty in what he tapped into. Rob and his wife wholeheartedly laughed and cried together, all the while appreciating the depths and wonder that our precious lives have to offer.
The Simplicity of the Practice
Frequently, the simplicity of a practice belies its powerful ability to profoundly change us. Practising gratitude opens our awareness to more things to feel grateful for, creating a snowball effect as we continue cultivating this wonderful quality of life.
Let me simplify the practice of gratitude into this infographic.
The Logic of How Gratitude is so Effective
Is the practice of gratitude really so effective and powerful, despite its simplicity? I will describe the process of how this practice worked in the case of Rob, who fortunately realised the important things in life before it was too late.
Our perceptions are guided by where we place our attention and what else may be in our awareness. In the case of Rob, who first came to see me furious that doctors had not diagnosed his wife sooner, a large part of his attention was focused on what the doctors failed to do sooner, and this increased his anger and stress about the situation.
I helped Rob move beyond the vicious circle of his anger, in order to experience what lay beneath this. What he found were sadness, fear, and uncertainty, and beneath these lay a frustration over his lack of control, as well as a deep love for his wife.
There are several options available to us when we are frustrated. We can place our attention on the cause of frustration, but this tends to lead to an increase in this. We could give up and feel dejected, but this does not exactly help our situation. Or, we could place our attention on something else that is real at that moment. Tapping into the deep love Rob felt for his wife that was underlying his frustration and anger about the situation seemed the most logical choice to take.
It was not difficult for Rob to feel the love he had for his wife. The problem was that he had grown so accustomed to directing his attention to his anger at the doctors that he could not keep his attention on this love. This is where the gratitude practice came in.
I suggested to Rob that he spend each evening before falling asleep reflecting on five things he was grateful for. In the morning, I suggested he could remind himself that he needed to find the five things in the evening, so he would be well served to be on a lookout for them during the day. This is how his thoughts and perceptions changed with time.
The more Rob looked out for things to be grateful for, the more he found. The more he appreciated the reality of what was in front of him, the less he was fixated on his anger and frustration. These remained in him, but he knew it was futile (and hence more frustrating) to focus on them. The gratitude practice opened him up to appreciating the last few months of his wife’s life with her, instead of raging against the medical establishment. Through this powerful practice, Rob managed to tap into the poignant beauty of the love he shared with his wife. Despite very difficult circumstances, he managed to be thankful as he felt joy, as well as anguish, throughout his last months with her and after her ultimate passing.
Did I really say ‘be thankful as he felt joy, as well as anguish’? I did indeed. We all know that we can be thankful for the joys in life. It may initially be difficult to notice these joys in life, but with a bit of practice, we can all notice and tap into this. But how could Rob possibly have felt thankful for the anguish he felt in his wife’s dying days?
Through the cultivation of gratitude, Rob felt deeply connected to the love he felt for his wife, grateful for the opportunity to be able to tend to her and make her as comfortable as possible in her final days, and an appreciation for the grateful smiles she offered him in response. They shared precious moments, laughed and cried together, planned for her care in her last days and lived in a state of grace appreciating the precious time they were fortunate to have been given together.
After she passed, Rob said to me, “I would not trade this for the world. I miss her so much, but what we shared in the last few weeks will last me until the end of my days”. Rob continued seeing me for a little while after his wife passed away, always very gracious and with heartfelt gratitude. As far as I know, Rob has continued the practice of gratitude on an ongoing basis.
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