How Shifting the Focus to Gratitude Helped My Family Heal
by Alicia Assad, MAPP, HC
I heard a scream from behind me in the house as I stepped out the door. In that moment, I was focused on my mental “to do” list should the pediatric urologist decide I would meet my new baby boy in the morning. At 36 weeks of pregnancy, the condition of my unborn son, Henry, was worsening and an induction to perform a surgery that would correct his posterior urethral valve was on the agenda at the appointment to which I was headed. But the babysitter’s scream sent me running back into the kitchen where I found my 2-year-old son, William, had been burned by a pot of boiling water as my then 4-year-old daughter, Catherine, looked on.
When I found myself in the emergency room instead of in the waiting room of Henry’s surgeon, I made a choice. To cope with the gravity of a doctor’s warning that William could die, I consciously chose to behave as if the future would turn out well. Believing my son was strong enough to endure the severe scald burn covering 16 percent of his small body might be considered denial, but a positive perspective helped me maintain my composure in a stressful situation.
Staying calm in the month following William’s accident was imperative. I needed to keep Henry snug inside my womb long enough to see William through the surgeries that ultimately saved his life. My presence with William was imperative for his well-being and superseded the necessity of Henry’s immediate induction. Added stress could have sent me into labor and I wanted more than anything to stay with William. The collision of events with my boys forced me to work hard at remaining calm and hopeful.
During this time in the burn unit, I relied on gratitude. My gratitude actions were often as small as acknowledging an email of care and concern or sincerely thanking the nurse who distracted William while I snuck a quick shower. These small moments of gratitude led to an increase of positive emotion. Therefore, I had a greater ability to cope under stress.
I also used a simple technique known as Three Good Things, in which you list what you are grateful for in a journal. It has been shown to have a positive effect on reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety while simultaneously increasing a sense of joy and well-being. I learned of this intervention in my studies of positive psychology, a science I did not anticipate would be applicable in a crisis.
One of the best examples of how I applied this technique occurred while William was recovering from skin graft surgery. He was raw from a procedure that harvested skin from his buttocks (donor site), which was then sewn onto his chest and right arm, when I remembered that gratitude could shift my perspective. The surgeon insisted that the donor site be exposed to air but the delicate grafts did not allow William to lie face down. Further complicating this order was William’s right arm, bandaged in an immobile 90-degree angle. We balanced him in a peculiar position on his side, but before long he began to swell. He could barely speak, let alone eat or drink anything. William required nutrition to heal or his body would reject the graft. This led to my state of despair.
I had no intention of formally writing down the blessings I was searching for as the exercise suggests. Furthermore, I was skeptical that it was appropriate given the situation. But my frustration was a distraction from focusing on William and rumination was not going to alleviate his pain. I had nothing to lose by consciously seeking gratitude.
I was desperately looking for something to appreciate when my favorite night nurse, Rhonda, began her shift. Determined and creative, she found a position that brought William comfort. Her attentive care was “blessing number 1.” I had a well-needed laugh at the absurdity of holding William in my arms, outstretched beyond my pregnant belly so his bottom could “air dry” and his swelling drain. Next I shifted my attention to my husband, Eddie, who was scrambling to bring me water and to replay a scene in the movie Shrek at William’s command. I was fortunate that our daughter was in the care of family members, which allowed Eddie to be a source of physical and emotional support. With that came “blessing number 2.” Immediately I realized that while it was extremely difficult to see my little boy in even more pain since the initial burn, he was out of surgery and in my arms. This meant we were on the road to recovery. “Blessing number 3” was the gift of time. With this major surgery behind us, I had seen William through the worst of the situation before needing to focus on Henry’s birth and health complications. Repeatedly I found that looking for blessings transformed my perspective. Before long, gratitude was easier and the larger picture became one of a family determined to heal.
William’s unwavering spirit was always my greatest blessing. His eagerness to play despite his injuries led to a quick transition back into the flow of our busy ousehold. William has extensive scars he will carry for life, but they should not impede his growth or mobility. Now 4 years old, his goofy yet sweet personality makes every day full of life and laughter. Catherine was resilient and flexible. A very strong and affectionate big sister, she will survive not only the traumatic event she witnessed, but the chaos of care her injured brother required and the arrival of a new baby to the household. Henry was well enough to stay in my womb until William was through his hospital stay. He gave us a 3-night respite at home before his birth as a healthy boy. The fact that he did not need immediate surgery seemed nothing short of a miracle. Eddie and I are stronger, more resilient, and more committed parents. “We are so lucky, it all could have been so much worse,” we often remark.
Physical recovery from a burn injury is arduous. Equally as challenging has been supporting William’s emotional well-being. Gratitude continues to help me stay positive, allows me to see the beauty in our challenges, and influences the encouragement I give William. Specifically, this helped when I heard another child tell William his scars were “disgusting and gross.” To resist the guilt and sadness these words evoked, I focused on the beauty of his scars. They are my constant reminder of what William survived, paradoxically a blessing despite the pain they signify. When William says, “Mommy, I wish my ‘ouchies’ would go away,” I reply, “Sweetie, your ‘ouchies’ mean you had to be really brave once.” With this thought, my boystands a bit taller and I find relief knowing I can impart the tools William needs to flourish despite the physical discomfort and emotional pain his scars might cause.
These days, I am grateful to have discovered Phoenix Society. Initially, I resisted help for anything other than William’s physical care. I was convinced the good outcome of our situation diminished our worthiness of support. Ever the determined mother, I set out to fix William and wanted more than anything to erase this terrible accident from our lives.
But if there is one thing William’s burn injury has taught me, it is that in life there are some things we cannot change or fix. Rather, it is our perspective we must shift in order to move forward and to heal. I now understand that remaining optimistic is not a one-time effort, but rather a synergy of the moments I choose to see as my blessings. For a long while I thought William’s accident was the defining moment of my life—the moment that changed the life of my family. But now I can see it is the choice I made to focus on what was good instead of what was wrong that has defined me. With this valuable lesson, I look to the journey ahead with confidence and strength.
William’s continued recovery will be filled with both triumphs and challenges, but knowing there is a community of fellow survivors that William can turn to gives me great comfort. Though gratitude has been a powerful tool, other people have mattered greatly, often shifting my perspective when I couldn’t myself. Recently, it is the stories I read of burn survivors who are flourishing that reinforce my optimism about my son’s future. I hope William will follow in the footsteps of these inspiring survivors, who continue seek out what is good, despite what has happened to them.
My love and encouragement can carry William only so far. Eventually, it will be other burn survivors who best support him. I suspect this community of inspiring individuals that comprise the Phoenix Society will be on my gratitude list for years to come.
THREE GOOD THINGS (also known as Three Blessings)
Several scientific studies suggest counting your blessings on a regular basis will make you happier and more content with life. Specifically, research suggests the act of writing down three good things that went well at the end of the day will have the most powerful effect in initiating change.
At the end of each day, after dinner and before going to sleep, write down three things that went well during the day. Do this every night for a week. The three things you list can be relatively small in importance (My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today.) or relatively large in importance (My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy.). After each positive event on your list, in your own words answer the question “Why did this good thing happen?” For example, you might speculate that your husband picked up ice cream “because he can be really thoughtful” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” When asked why your sister gave birth to a healthy baby boy, you might explain, “God was looking out for her” or “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”
Each night before you go to sleep, follow these steps:
- Think of three good things that happened today.
- Write them down.
- Reflect on why they happened
Peterson C. A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press;2006:38–39.
Emmons R. Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflan Company;2007.
Peterson C. A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press;2006.
Seligman MEP, Steen TA, Park N, Peterson C. Positive psychology in progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist. 2005;60:410–421.
Alicia Assad is a former Miss New Jersey and Radio City Rockette. She earned her Health Coach (HC) certification from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania. The mother of a burn survivor, she is committed to writing and speaking about how applying positive psychology in times of trauma and crisis can lead to resilience and hope. For more information, please visit http://www.beautifulcrisis.com.