Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend."
― Melody Beattie


As I look back at 2015, it's been an intense year for practicing gratitude, trust, and vulnerability. I got to practice finding happiness, too. (Read that post here.)

In April, two longtime friends died while surveying ice thickness in the Canadian Arctic. They weren't just friends, they were like family. And me, I had the unfortunate task of starting the search and rescue when their distress signal came in. Shortly thereafter, five of us were gathered in my home to handle the crisis, and my dining room table became the crisis center. We handled everything for the families, including working with the authorities on the recovery and dealing with the international press. (You might have read the NY Times article or one of the articles in The Guardian UK.)

As we worked through that first night trying to ascertain if our friends were still alive, I couldn't help but notice that never before had I felt so much love for two people as I did in that room with the five of us.

And that love grew like a ripple effect as word spread...

The outpouring of love for Marc and Philip, as well as for their loved ones, seemed to echo around the world, and it was with mixed emotions that I watched the world react via the press and social media. The news articles, editorials, and blog posts from that first month, compiled by volunteers, formed a one inch thick hardbound book, which I'm still not ready to look at. Then in November about 1200 people gathered in The Hague to celebrate the lives of our two friends. It was beautiful, poignant, and well as heavy and very sad. It took me a few days to be able to function again, and I had to search for gratitude. Then I realized that this gathering had brought together people who might never have met and inspired many others to action. (Read about two experiences here and here.)

Yes, this year has been one long exercise in seeking & finding gratitude.


“Life is amazing. And then it's awful. And then it's amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it's ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That's just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it's breathtakingly beautiful.” ― L.R. Knost

To be honest, the first four weeks after their deaths were pure hell. After their funerals Armand and I fled to a place where we find solace: the southernmost tip of Africa. (See above images.) How apropos.

I felt lost. Wrecked. Burned to the ground from the inside-out. And my innocence was lost, forever.

For two months I couldn't function. What that taught me is that a crisis team needs its own support team. Everyone needs support to be able to survive a loss.

While I've lost people in my life before, this was by far the most painful. Only a few times in my life have I allowed myself to fully feel the intensity of the pain in the moment, and this was one of them. One thing I learned is to feel my body when I'm crying. In doing that, I found that crying from my stomach is not nearly as cathartic as crying from my heart. Sure it hurts like hell to fully feel it, but that pain cleaves open the heart and will allow one to love more deeply once the scar tissue has formed over the wound.

One month after the deaths — while I was still lying on the proverbial floor — another giant blow came when one of my in-laws was rushed to the hospital. Twice in one month’s time. But life has a strange way of sending us a lifeline just when we think we're about to drown. Around that same time I was given not one, but two opportunities to mentor, coach, and teach photographers of all levels from around the world. It has proven to be the biggest blessing, as helping others kept me sane when I was in a very dark place. I am especially grateful to the students who frustrated me because, as I eventually realized, it was not frustration but depression that was sucking me into the black hole. Gratitude lives in strange places.

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." ― Albert Schweitzer

I have been vigilant to pay attention to how I’m feeling so that, at any sign of the downward spiral, I make a point of pulling myself up and practicing gratitude for all that I have. I refuse to allow my friends' deaths to overshadow the wonderful things that happened this year.

I celebrated 15 years together with my beloved Armand.
My parents celebrated 50 years of marriage, surrounded by family.
Two of my in-laws have outlived cancer for yet another precious year.
And a strong bond formed with several people because of the loss, especially within the crisis team.

And then there are the thousands of small, ordinary things for which I'm grateful.

I was totally lost. And then I found myself again.
I turned my back on fear on numerous occasions...because death puts everything into perspective.
I finally bought a full-length mirror…and I turned 46 and finally love what I see in the mirror!

"The best thing you could do is master the chaos in you. You are not thrown in to the fire. You ARE the fire." ― Mama Indigo

Now some final words from someone else on how to handle grief. This was written by an anonymous man on Reddit answering someone's heartfelt plea: “My friend just died. I don’t know what to do.” He answered with the below:

"Alright, here goes. I'm old. What that means is that I've survived (so far) and a lot of people I've known and loved did not. I've lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can't imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here's my two cents.

"I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don't want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don't want it to "not matter". I don't want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can't see.

"As for grief, you'll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you're drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it's some physical thing. Maybe it's a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it's a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.

"In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don't even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you'll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what's going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything...and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.

"Somewhere down the line, and it's different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O'Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you'll come out. Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don't really want them to. But you learn that you'll survive them. And other waves will come. And you'll survive them too. If you're lucky, you'll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks."