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Thanksgiving: Gratitude for Even the Hard Stuff

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As Thanksgiving rolls around, it always puts me in a reset mode -- time to remember what I'm grateful for. Usually, it's the good stuff: moments of joy, new adventures, fun-filled moments. This year, however, is different: My father just passed away, my dog may have to be put to sleep any day and my dear friend who is a LOT younger finds herself in the last stages of cancer... and I generally write about happiness.

There is a shroud of disbelief and grief around me, but I know that there's something powerfully transformative in this space. Rather than destroying my gratitude, this period is rekindling it in an even deeper way.

Some people are born optimists. My father was one. Up until the week before he passed, he believed he would live to 100. Denial kept my dad going for years. When the nurses came around, he would always say, "I'm GREAT!" which made everyone chuckle. Was this some kind of brilliant strategy? For some people, their will to live can and does produce the miracle. The biochemistry of hope can be powerful.

Yet when all those cycles have passed, when destiny catches up with desire (like being back in the hospital every two weeks), rather than dance with denial, I prefer to know the parameters of the situation. With that clear understanding, then I can choose how I want to frame it and so come to a sense of peace. When my dad was passing, my 10-year-old niece framed it beautifully: "He's on his way to becoming an angel." Out of the mouth of babes, right?

Here are five reminders that are helping me see gratitude at a whole new level:

1. Be grateful for the small stuff: The small stuff is actually the most important, like sharing a smile, savoring a good meal, having the grace to wake up another day, or saying I love you. The beauty of everyday life is present all the time if we just notice.

2. Live as if this day or this year was your last: Often we only appreciate something when it is threatened. We value our health when we get sick, we appreciate the charm of a house just before we sell it, and we remember meaningful conversations when the other person is no longer around. What if we could reverse that and feel gratitude right here and now? What if we could be thankful for what is present in front of us, even if it is not exactly what we had in mind?

3. Lessons all around: In Man's Search for Meaning, author Victor Frankl explored how we cannot change what life presents; we can however choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances. When challenges shock the day-to-day as we know it, two questions are helpful.

• What did I learn from this situation?

• How has it made me stronger?

It can take some time, acceptance and inner stillness to even ask these questions. When we're caught in the escalating tornado of emotions, it's hard to have perspective. But by looking back, everything becomes clearer. Clarity gives birth to peace. Another aspect is self-compassion. Consider replacing "If I had only..." with "I did my best under the circumstances." That's part of the lesson, too.

4. The human condition: One of the things that blasts open our humanity is that we all have to deal with the hard stuff at one point or another. It doesn't matter what country you live in, how much money is in the bank or what job you have -- life happens. Some people get their lessons earlier, some experience suffering later on. In all cases, it cracks open our hearts to know a new level of compassion for others (as opposed to "Why me?"). If we remember that it is not personal -- dealing with suffering is part of what unites us as humans -- then compassion, even for ourselves, can grow.

5. There is a bigger picture: We are all connected to something greater, however that is defined. We all have a purpose/assignment in life. Ideally that is fulfilling on a deep level and can help others, too. There is a bigger plan at work, even if it not visible in the here and now. Try tuning in. Carve out some quiet time. Listen for the clues and connect. Expressing your authentic self, kindness, love, understanding and forgiveness all open the gates of gratitude.

This Thanksgiving, I am viewing things in a new way. I have a renewed appreciation and a sense of not taking things for granted. I am thankful to have had my father around for as long as I did; images of my dog will live forever, and my friend is a strong reminder of the preciousness of each day. These are my teachers, and I am blessed to have them in my life. Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving, full of love, laughter and gratitude for all that is.

What challenges have made you more grateful for life?

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