It is the first week of January. Time for me to create the year end report of the income and expenses for my business last year. I’ve had such a sense dread and foreboding as I think about looking at those numbers. 2020 was not a very lucrative year for my home based small business.
Then I feel guilty for feeling bad about my pitiful income last year. I am so lucky that my husband, who is the main breadwinner for our family, has kept his job through the pandemic. We have a safe childcare option for our toddler. We are all healthy. No one we love has died from Covid. We have enough to eat and we can pay our mortgage.
What the hell do I have to feel bad about? There are people who had loved ones die alone in the ICU without being able to visit them. There are people who are about to be evicted and don’t have enough to eat. There are people who lost their business and it won’t ever come back. There are people who are permanently disabled by Covid.
Gratitude is a tricky thing sometimes.
I believe in the power of gratitude. I keep a journal and regularly create gratitude lists. It is so important for all of us to keep a perspective on our suffering. Feeling grateful by recognizing that things could be worse is a powerful and effective way to shift your perspective. Yet focusing on the fact that others may have it worse can be toxic and unhelpful. Just because it could be worse does not mean we aren’t allowed to be sad and frustrated by our disappointments. Suffering is suffering.
About a decade ago, when I was in my late 30s I married a wonderful man. We planned to start a family. A little over a year later he was diagnosed with gastric cancer. When he was first diagnosed his prognosis was pretty good. The plan was for chemotherapy, surgery, then more chemotherapy and then we could move on with life.
In those early months I was angry that our life plans were being so thrown off track. I wanted to start a business and have a baby and his cancer meant all of that was put on hold for at least a couple of years. With my biological clock ticking this was particularly frustrating and scary. As friends announced pregnancies, births, new homes and promotions at work, I was watching my husband suffer through chemotherapy. Sometimes I felt resentful.
Six months later we found out that his cancer had spread explosively throughout his body. The doctor told my 36 year old husband to “get your affairs in order”; he was expected to live a few months or weeks. The next day when some friends posted photos on social media from their tenth wedding anniversary party in Vegas I was livid. How dare they celebrate? Why did they get 10 years of marriage and we only got two?
A few months later I drove to the crematorium to pick up my husband’s ashes. It felt weird that people could be driving their cars to work and eating lunch and going to stores. Didn’t they know my husband was dead? I felt like I wasn’t even in my own body, I was just watching a really sad movie.
A few weeks later when the anniversary of his diagnosis came I pondered for the first time how I might have been feeling if the treatment had worked and the cancer hadn’t spread. We would have been planning a trip to Hawaii to celebrate my 40th birthday. Would I have just been grateful he was still alive or bitter that our chances for a family were likely over?
Perspective is everything.
At that moment all I wanted more than anything was for him to be alive. Yet if he had survived I would have been completely justified in being angry and upset that my husband had cancer and our chances of having a family were much, much lower because of it. We would have had to wait at least a year before trying to get pregnant and we might not have even tried to have a family since cancer recurrence was a real possibility. Cancer turned everything upside down for us and the whole thing still would have been awful even if he had lived.
I’m sure I would have eventually gotten to a place of peace about it, just like I have with his death. But it would have been perfectly reasonable for me to mourn the lost opportunity of a different life. Even though I have remarried and have a family now I am still entitled to sometimes be sad about what I lost with him.
2020 was a hard year for pretty much everyone. People lost a lot. Is the person who lost their job better off than the person who has chronic fatigue as a Covid long hauler? Is the person who lost their home better off than the person who lost a business that won’t ever recover? What about the people who lost their parent or spouse? What about the lady who dreamed of growing her small home based business to finally be able to save for retirement? Who is most entitled to feel angry and upset? Consider that we all are.
I once saw a post on Facebook by someone who lost their home in a wild fire. She said she was sick of people saying “at least everyone got out alive” when they heard of her loss. Of course she was grateful her family survived but losing all of your earthly possessions really sucks. She was entitled to be angry and have others comfort her for the loss of all of her things.
It seems as a society we are really uncomfortable just accepting that bad things happen and we don’t know what to say. We want to be positive and uplifting so we point out how it could have been worse. It may be true but it doesn’t really help to have someone point this out, especially in the immediate aftermath.
Life hands us all immense difficulties sometimes and those difficulties can help us appreciate what we have. Still, we have to be careful with comparisons and looking at the bright side. Be grateful and mindful but don’t beat yourself or others up with that gratitude. Positivity can be toxic if poorly timed.
Gratitude is important. Perspective is important. Recognizing your privilege is important. Yet you still have a right to grieve the things that could have been that did not happen. Those lost possibilities are real and your sadness is justified.
Previously published on medium
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