What My Mother's Death Taught Me About Gratitude

Kimberly Zapata
·5 min read

Gratitude: It’s not a word you usually hear in relation to death. I mean, you anticipate sadness, and certainly anger. Confusion is common. So are denial, disbelief, guilt, humiliation, and despair. But gratitude? The idea that one can be thankful over (and for) a loss and for death can feel foreign, abstract, or even wrong. But as 2020 comes to a close, this is precisely what I feel: gratitude.

Strange as it sounds, I’m thankful my mother died this year.

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Now I know what you’re thinking: How cold and callous! Only a sick and sordid person could be thankful for such a loss. But before you judge me, please try to understand.

My mother was an unhealthy person — a sick person. And while her illness was never named, she was a mentally unwell person. Her home, full of boxes and varied belongings, was her prison. In the years leading up to her death, she struggled to get up and out of bed. She rarely left her house. She didn’t have the will to shower — or to really live at all. She drowned her sorrows in alcohol; she drank 10 to 12 beers every day.

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And while there is more to her story (and her depression) than that — she struggled to eat and function, her face was unwashed, her hair was unbrushed, and a layer of dust and soot coated her body and house — the details don’t matter. Not really. What matters is her struggle.

She was sad and despondent. She would often talk in absolutes, and she welcomed the idea of death. She had no plan for the next day or the year; instead of thriving, she was just surviving. Any zest for life had been sucked out of her. Well before her death, my mother was a shell — just a husk, a person without a core. And despite numerous interventions, there was no helping her. There was no saving her.

I knew, years ago, that her death would be tragic. Because already, every day I saw her, I watched her die.

And that’s why I am thankful for her loss this year. Because in death, there is respite. There is peace. She isn’t suffering anymore. She is also with my father, or so my faith tells me — or so I was raised to believe. But that’s not all: My mother’s death taught me to be grateful for what I have. To thank the universe every day that I, unlike her, am able to feel, to fight, and to breathe.

My mother’s death taught me to live fully and completely, no more wasted moments. My mother’s death taught me to love openly and with my whole heart. After all, we only get one lifetime — one chance to be with others and connect with others — so I’m going to do what I can, when I can. I’m going to say “I love you” if I feel it, and hug when I need it.

My mother’s death taught me to be patient and kind. Everyone is fighting some sort of battle, whether we realize it or not, but tomorrow is not guaranteed. So sympathize, empathize, lead with understanding, and listen with an open heart.

Her death taught me the value of friends, family, and community. When my mother passed at 65, she had nothing to her name — no savings, no assets, and no friends. She was a loner through and through. Her parents had passed on, but she did leave behind siblings who were there for me when I needed them.

I wish I was able to mourn the memories we had, not the ones we never made because addiction stole her identity.

Her funeral was funded quickly, using donations on a very public site. My needs were cared for completely and thoroughly. The day after my mother died, meals and care packages arrived. Her family became my community; my aunts still check in on me every few weeks, months later.

Of course, I am not alone. A 2011 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that our sense of gratitude can increase after the death of a loved one — particularly when we reflect on our own life. That was indeed my experience. When my mother died, life suddenly felt very short, and each moment became incredibly important.

Do I wish my grief process was different? Yes and no. I mean, I am thankful for these lessons, but I wish my mother didn’t have to suffer. I wish her life (and our relationship) had looked different. I also wish I was able to mourn the memories we had, not the ones we never made because addiction stole her identity. Because mental illness stole her mind. But I am thankful. I am grateful. Even in grief, I am #blessed.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, you can get help by calling the Drug Addiction Hotline at 1-877-813-5721.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, you should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or reach Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. You can also head to your nearest emergency room or call 911.

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