As we adjust to a new normal, lessons in grief and gratitude

It’s natural to mourn the lost rhythms of daily life, but gratitude helps us move forward. Here’s how.

Experts say you should try to appreciate what you can about your current environment, even if it's just a moment alone in the sun. “Studies show that gratitude is linked to happiness by the age of 5," said Dr. Fatima Watt. Craig F. Walker

This week, I asked what you’d never take for granted once all this — I’m gesturing broadly into the abyss right now — ends. You replied in droves.

The rattle of the T as it hums over the Charles River. The smell of Brookline Booksmith. The joyful chaos of a playground. School. Oh, man, an empty house. Shivering on the sidelines during an endless late fall baseball game. The autumnal hum of Harvard Square. Even traffic on Storrow Drive. Or my personal favorite, from a respondent in Melrose: “The joy of pounding margaritas at Mexico Lindo. Waking up the next morning with a hangover that I don’t mistake for possible early COVID symptoms.”

We’re mourning the lost rhythms of daily living. We’re grieving for those beautiful mundanities. But grief is a powerful word, typically reserved for the loss of human life. And without a doubt, so many of us have lost loved ones — more than 200,000 of them. But we’ve also lost the reassuring poetry of sameness, whether it’s riding the bus, saying hi to another parent at drop-off, or hugging a friend without fear. These are the things that reinforce our place in the world.

But during the first six or so months of this mess, I think, we were in survival mode. Untangle the laptop cord. Find the Zoom login. Return work e-mails while hiding in the bathroom. Stockpile masks. Stockpile toilet paper. Rinse. Repeat. We didn’t have the mental capacity to miss our old lives.

Now, though, the humdrum whiff of existential resignation has seeped in. This is what normal is now, eh? As our fight-or-flight response cranks down a notch, we have time to take in the grim reality of our situation. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? And with it comes a sense of deep mourning.

Some of us might feel guilty about grieving, especially if we haven’t actually lost someone to COVID-19. Is it ethical, I don’t know, to mourn your morning latte? But what we’re really grieving is a loss of familiarity and safety, and so are our kids.

“If you have loved, you have grieved,” says Laura Tuach, assistant director of field education in the Office of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School (and mom to 8-year-old twins). Our kids feel it, too. They’re missing friendships, freedom, the traditional hallmarks of childhood.

“It’s really significant for them, and it’s easy to lose track of that when we’re trying to keep up with meals, or keeping things clean, and making sure there is some stability in the home,” she says. For children, she says, grief might show up in subtle ways: a refusal to go outside; a reliance on TV. It will show up when they least expect it, as they think about what was left behind, just as it does for grown-ups.

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The past

So how do we cope with this? This is a grief that is amorphous — a pervasive sense of lost normalcy, as opposed to the concrete loss of a loved one marked by funerals, eulogies, memorials. First, Tuach says, it’s important not to rush to find silver linings. Yes, there are benefits to this mess, for some: more unstructured time at home with kids; less pressure to ping-pong to 50 random activities. But this is also devastating, and it’s OK to let the anger, the sadness, and the absence wash over us.

“I worry about the rush to silver linings and the rush to find gratitude. That isn’t to say we can’t sit down with our families and say, ‘This is a hard day, but what can we also be grateful for?’ But when you are grieving, you need to allow space for that to happen. Parents are so busy right now. Even the notion that they would have a few minutes to feel something feels radical to me, as someone who is trained in the reflective art of noticing feelings,” she says.

So that’s the first step: Acknowledge that it’s happening. Make space and time to mourn.

It’s also important to know that grief isn’t “one and done,” she says. It might creep up on you like a shadow while watching TV or knock you over like a wave in the middle of a meeting. Maybe you’ll feel inexplicably tired for no clear reason, aching with the dull fatigue of monotony. Maybe your child will suddenly refuse to go outside.

“A kid who was able to sleep alone might not be able to anymore, or a child who was potty-trained might start having accidents,” says Dr. Fatima Watt, director of behavioral health services at Franciscan Children’s and the Children’s Wellness Initiative, which provides mental health services to kids in need at Boston’s public schools.

Appreciate what you can about your current environment, in even the most fundamental and sensory ways. Maybe it's just the sound of a guinea pig clucking. ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images

The present

But gratitude is a powerful counter to grief — not a replacement, a complement.

“Teaching gratitude, especially in the context of COVID-19, is about building resiliency,” says Watt. “Studies show that gratitude is linked to happiness by the age of 5. Grateful kids are less jealous, depressed, or materialistic than ungrateful kids. By instilling gratitude in your children at such a young age, you’re setting them up to be much happier overall.”

You’re asking: But how? Life is strange and surreal. What is there to appreciate? Watt says it’s about staying in the present — not looking ahead too much. Appreciate what you can about your current environment, in even the most fundamental and sensory ways: the sound of a guinea pig clucking (that’s a personal one for me); the feeling of the sun. Point it out. Recognize it. For now, trade in the universal currency of small moments.

The future

Gratefulness also primes us for the future, says David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University who studies gratitude. Experiencing gratitude makes us more willing to act virtuously down the line, strengthening our relationships with other people.

“What that means, in terms of COVID-19, is if you feel grateful, it makes you more willing to put on that mask and help other people. It makes you more willing to go onto the computer and help an elderly neighbor who doesn’t know how to order [groceries]. It makes us willing to pay acts of kindness forward to ensure other people will pay it back to us. It strengthens our social ties,” he says.

But how do we practice gratitude when we’re looking backward, nostalgic for things that no longer exist? He uses a simple exercise called a Reciprocity Ring. Each family member writes a request for help on a white board or with a Post-It note: support logging onto Minecraft; assistance unloading the dishwasher. Another family member claims the request. This boosts and curates gratitude within your own circle, creating a domino effect. You make someone else feel grateful, who then in turn pays it forward for you. (Yeah, gratitude isn’t always completely altruistic.)

“When you feel grateful, it takes your mind off grief. Grief focuses on what’s lost, and there is merit to that. But if you’re focusing only on what is lost, you’re going to be in a perpetual state of mourning,” he says.

Just like you take medicine to stop a headache, engaging in these exercises is an intervention.

Did you ever imagine you could miss taking the Red Line? Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“You’re changing your emotional state for the moment, giving yourself a new metaphorical set of glasses. The more you do that, the more it becomes a habit,” he says.

And as for those lost rides on the T? The missed baseball games?

“What I tell people is: Write a letter to your future self. ‘Next time I ride the Red Line, I won’t take it for granted. I will embrace that I can experience this again.’ Put it in your envelope, and open it on the first day you ride the T again,” he says.

Yes, believe it or not, one day we’ll need to be reminded to appreciate the Red Line.

So as we muddle through these first few weeks of a new school year, a new routine, and a new framework for daily life, remember: Stillness is a noble state. You are a person, not a product; you are a human, not a factory. It’s OK to pause in grief, but there are always things to be grateful for, too. Both emotions can exist together.

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