Finding Gratitude and Happiness

One of my strongest childhood memories is this: My younger brothers and I are sitting close together on our living room rug, looking up at my father who sat in an armchair in the corner of the room. He had gathered us together to talk about what was to come. We all knew, of course. He had been battling cancer for years and my parents were always very open with us. Even at the ages of 10, 8 and 4 we knew he would not be with us much longer. Somehow my father, with all that he had to face, had the strength to bring us together that day to tell us one very important thing. He told us to never, not for one second, ever, feel sorry for him. That in his 33 years he had lived a fuller, happier life than some people see in 100 years. That he was grateful for everything he had been given.

Those words have always made my grief just a little bit easier. To know that he died without regret and with a feeling of true gratitude. I can remember even while he was sick he kept finding more and more little ways to fill up his life with happiness (and our lives with memories). There were family trips to Cooperstown and Disney World. There was the hot air balloon ride he took just because it was something he had always wanted to do. It would be easy to think “oh how sad that someone so intent on really living life should have his cut short”, but remembering his words shifts my thoughts to “oh, thank goodness that someone who was given only 33 years knew how to make the best of his time.”

I am 33 now. And a mother of 2 young kids. Next April, I will be older than my father ever got to be. There is something about this — about being the age that he was and about having children of my own — that makes me feel a new kind of connection to him. Up until recently I only saw him through a child’s eyes. Now I imagine how I might feel if I were in his place. If I knew that the end of my life was near. That I was leaving behind young children who would be forced to cope without me; a husband who would lose his partner in life. Would I be able to look my own family in the eyes and tell them that I didn’t feel sorry for myself? That my life was complete and I could not have asked for more?

I realize, with some surprise, that maybe I could. I’m sure I’d feel a million other emotions (and it’s painful to think of the things he must have felt) but I believe that one of them would be gratitude. My father’s words on that day have stayed with me. I have done my best to fill my life up with everything that is important — love, family, happiness. I’ve made the decision to feel grateful for the small pleasures in life and to do my best not to dwell on the little ways life is not always perfect. Am I always successful? Of course not. And that’s ok. We all need to be sad sometimes and mourn both the small and big disappointments in our lives. But, for me at least, it’s not ok to let this sadness consume me. To become who I am.

There is only one thing parents want for their children: happiness. People say that all the time, but it becomes a crystal clear and absolutely overwhelming feeling once you have your own children. You know you would do anything if it could ensure their happiness; that my father would have done anything to know that my brothers and I would find a way to be happy. How could I ever allow myself to live anything less than a full and joyful life?

Happiness is a choice. I can spend my time grieving all of the things my father hasn’t seen. My wedding day, the birth of my children, the birth of my nephew (his namesake)…or I can feel grateful for the things he did. For the thousands of days he woke up and saw his children smiling back at him. For the joy he must have felt the day my mother walked down the aisle toward him. For the hours upon hours spent cuddled up reading with us; playing ball in the yard; sitting on the floor and playing with our toys with us.

When I see my kids laughing or smiling or holding hands, I feel full. And I understand how, at 33, my father could have felt full, too.

Special thanks to guest author K. O’Reilly for sharing this story with us.

Photo credit.


  1. Barbara Restifo said on February 18, 2012 at 11:16 am ... #

    I could not get through this without sobbing. Your Dad was an inspiration to all of us and I think about his strength during that painful time almost everyday. Your Mom continued to raise the 3 of you with unconditional love and strength and the amazing character of the 3 of you is testament to that. I am so proud of you and know that your dad is beaming down from heaven.
    I Love You,
    Aunt Barbara

  2. ashley said on February 18, 2012 at 5:32 pm ... #

    I am sobbing reading this right now. I can cose my eyes and see him sitting in that chair. This was so beautiful and I feel so honored to know you and be a part of all this love!

  3. Diane Gandolfo said on February 22, 2012 at 8:49 am ... #

    I cried as well reading this, but my tears came mostly from joy. Joy that in your loss you saw what your father saw and you and you understood the lesson he left you. It was my absolute pleasure to know him and watch you and your brothers grow up to be such amazing adults. Your words could teach each and every one of us how to live each day!

  4. Wendy Sefcik said on March 9, 2012 at 7:31 am ... #

    What an inspiring article and words I live by—gratitude in grief. I have survived the loss of a husband at 26, both parents and now my 16 year old son. Your words, “oh, thank goodness that someone who was given only 33 years knew how to make the best of his time.” struck a chord with me, because I have used similar words while mourning the loss of my precious son. He put a lot of living into 16 years and every moment with him was a gift. I have chosen to focus on the beauty and gifts he brought into our lives instead of the pain and devastation left by his passing. The pain of his loss will never leave me, but I live my days with a smile on my face and gratitude in my heart that I was blessed to be the mother of this beautiful boy. Thank you for your heartwarming article. I believe your Dad is still with you everyday and proud of the wonderful woman you have become.

  5. Jeanette said on August 15, 2012 at 5:19 pm ... #

    Its been such a joy to be your buddy growing up. Thanks for reminding me about what matters…

  6. Anonymous said on August 15, 2012 at 8:31 pm ... #

    Kiss you kids always find new ways to make us proud.
    We love you gram pop

  7. Doreen Morrison said on August 16, 2012 at 11:41 am ... #

    That was such a beautiful letter. I cried as I read it. What a great memory to your dad who we all knew & loved.

  8. Eileen Anglace said on August 16, 2012 at 8:14 pm ... #

    Thank you for sharing. I’m crying, but not tears of sadness. Grateful that my wonderful nephew, my sister’s beloved son is remembered with such precious memories. I’ll be reading this to Nana Anna when I see her tomorrow. I believe it will give her comfort.

  9. Mary Robinson said on January 1, 2013 at 4:45 pm ... #

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful and inspiring story of you and your dad.

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