The Family Practice of Gratitude






Those of us who are a part of the baby boomer generation grew up in an optimistic world. Tyranny had been defeated and our parents subscribed to Dr. Norman Vincent Rale’s theory of the power of Positive Thinking. Most families were active members of a faith-based community and gratitude was an integral part of our national character.


From the painting Freedom From Want.

Over the decades much has changed. Life is now much more immediate. The twenty-four hour news cycle bombards us with breaking news, so often something that has been repeated throughout a day or even longer. The word “crisis”” is used to modify most situations. Cell phones calling us wherever we are, and texts, emails, tweets, and Instagram posts all demand our immediate attention. Complicated social changes have made most families two-income families regardless of whether there is a financial necessity.

In short, most people feel rushed, stressed, negative, and anxious. It is well-documented that social media can be the source of envy. Envy is the opposite of gratitude. That is not to say that all aspects of social media ae negative. Caring Bridge pages, which came into being because of the generosity of those with a true spirit of caring for others, allow those experiencing serious illness to update friends and family and the recipient of their love, encouragement, and support. I am grateful to no one such person whose generosity made the creation of Caring Bridge a reality.

Thanksgiving, that glorious holiday of national gratitude has been almost eliminated in our national psyche by the rush to leap straight from Halloween into Christmas. It first began with retailers but now as you walk or drive around your neighborhood, you see Christmas lights, reindeer, and Santa Claus. What has happened to Thanksgiving, that beautiful holiday that celebrates gratitude?

Gratitude is a healthy state of mind, and families who make a point of emphasizing it within their family as a conscious practice lay the foundation of good character and a positive approach to life within their children. Even if you have a toddler cruising around the house grabbing objects off the lower shelves of bookcases and coffee tables, a sweet but firm “no thank you” as you gently remove the objects from their grasp is much more effective and positive than “don’t, stop, NO!”


Family time together can create lessons in gratitude.

Contrary what The Count on Sesame Street teaches children, the real magic words are not “a la peanut butter sandwiches” but “please and thank you.” Children who hear their parents say “thank you” to the server who refills their water glass and “yes, please” to the person who asks if they may remove their plate benefit, as does society: young people model their behavior on the adults around them. Simply put, polite adults have polite children, kind families have kind children, and families who practice gratitude have grateful children.

There are some simple things you can do as a parent to make gratitude an integral part of your child’s character. One is to always take time to return thanks at the beginning of a meal. It is no accident that a focus on prayer, representing all the world religions, incorporates words that acknowledge God as the source of all bounty. This is possible even if your family does not practice any formal religion—you can make up a “thank you” poem. I like one that is the beginning of a Hap Palmer song: “There are many things I am thankful for, you can find them near and far / There are many things I am thankful for, here are some of what they are.” In either event, it is nice to then go around the table and ask each person what they are thankful for, not just on Thanksgiving. You are sure to get some delightful responses, which make the recipient of the gratitude very happy and reinforces the importance of kindness.

At a Sunday night supper or family gathering, it is also fun to spread gratitude by giving each person at the table the same number of small pieces of paper as there are people there to dine. Every person then writes something they are grateful for about each person present, filling out each slip of paper they are handed with kind words. You place the unsigned papers next each person’s plate and everyone present takes turns reading his or her papers, with the task of having to guess who said that nice thing about them.

Another easy and more personal exercise one can do is to keep a confidential gratitude journal and commit to writing in it each day. This can be a wonderful asset for reflection and memory building and something all family members can work on individually.

Building good character is much like building a brick wall, laying one brick at a time to create a firm foundation. When character is built in this way, one can sustain the most devastating of blows and not only function but also retain the ability to express gratitude, empathy, strength, and kindness. In the past few months, I have witnessed three wonderful families who having experienced the most devastating of blows: the loss of a family member.


The Fetzer family.

In December of 2018, Molly Fetzer, a beautiful, vibrant, and successful mother, daughter, sister, and teacher, received the devastating news that she had stage four metastatic breast cancer. Her wonderful family rallied immediately around her forming Team Molly to love, support, and seek out for her the most extensive medical treatment available. Fetzer and her family were no strangers to grief, having lost their own mother at a very early age. Being a family of great faith, they held a candlelight prayer service on a dark and stormy night attended by over 1,000 people. The service was a celebration of hope and inspiration, as candles were lit one after the other until the darkened church was ablaze with the light of eternal life.

As the months passed, Molly and her family set about the task of building memories for all of them but particularly her beloved twin sons. Molly lost her courageous battle on June 11th, and Team Molly set about creating a beautiful service to honor her. All of her siblings took part, and her sister and father eulogized her. During the funeral mass, “kindness cards” were passed out to the congregation. All in attendance were invited to send at least one card or as many as they wanted to take and send to friends telling them how grateful they were to have them in their life, or to reach out to someone with whom they had lost touch or maybe from whom they had become estranged. The hope was to spread the kindness and gratitude that was so emblematic of Molly far and wide.


Molly and her boys.

In early August the beloved son of Scott and Kelly Newhall, a rising senior at Northside Prep and a phenomenal athlete being recruited by the most selective colleges and universities on both coasts, was tragically killed in an accident. Jack was a scholar and athlete, but most importantly, a beloved son, brother, and grandson. Jack and Luke, only a few years apart, were more than brothers. They were best friends. And then along came Charlie, thirteen years younger than Jack.


The Newhalls.

When Jackie died, his parents said, “Now we know why God sent us Charlie.” Because Jack was young and in perfect health at the time of his passing, his family elected to donate his organs to six very grateful people who are now living better lives thanks to Jack Newhall. Kelly, a well-known pediatric allergist who has spent her life saving the lives of children with severe asthma and allergies, saw no irony in the fact that she had lost a beloved child. Rather, she chose the path of gratitude, saying how lucky she was to have this precious boy for eighteen years.

In Jack’s honor, his friends and relatives raised $600,000 to purchase boats and equipment for his beloved Boat House Team. Speaking at the reception held at the Boat House, Kelly spoke to the assembled crowd and said, “Please don’t be afraid of hurting us. We want to share in the joys and achievements of you children who meant so much to Jack and to our family.” Kelly and her friends have lived up to this expectation. When I saw her last Thursday, she was dashing off to have dinner with a group of moms from Jack’s preschool and grade school for a mom’s night out.


Jack and Kelly Newhall.

Tuesday morning, November 12, in the very early hours of the morning, Michelle Miller Rawley lost her 3.5-year battle with colon cancer. Michelle was the daughter of my closet neighbor and best friends in Wisconsin. Our children grew up together. Michelle was the light of so many peoples lives that more than 2,500 people stood in line for over four hours to offer their condolences to her family. That is more people than view the Mona Lisa in the same time period. Among the mourners was the entire staff of Gordy’s.


The Rawleys.

Michelle fought her cancer at the best hospitals and sought alternative treatments as well. She fought hard because she had a lot to live for a wonderful husband, three beautiful sons, and dedicated parents and siblings. Throughout her ordeal she was positive, upbeat, and lots of fun. People simply thought she couldn’t possibly be that sick because she looked beautiful, was always energetic, and laughed a lot. I remember so well being with her at a 50th anniversary party for some mutual friends at Riva on Navy Pier. Since she and her wonderful mom arrived a little early, they decided to ride the giant Ferris wheel. Of course, it broke down and they were suspended high over the city for nearly 30 minutes. She found it hilarious and loved telling everyone the story.

During the year-and-a-half that she sought alternative treatments, Michelle traveled frequently to Arizona, usually accompanied by her mother but sometimes by close friends. She even made those experiences fun. One friend reminisced that when they pulled into the car park at the airport and despite the 118-degree temperature, she knew that they would be renting the black VW Beetle convertible and that they would be peeling out of the parking lot with the top down and the music blaring. During one of their visits, Michelle said to her mom, “Hey, neither one of us has ever been to the Grand Canyon. Let’s go!” And they did. While looking at the Grand Canyon, Michelle observed that it was lucky she got cancer, otherwise she and her mom would have never had so much time together and neither one would have seen that beautiful miracle of nature. When I asked my courageous friend who beautifully eulogized her daughter how she was feeling, she replied, “Grateful that my daughter is no longer suffering.”


Michelle Rawley (at right) and her mother, Barb Miller.

I am profoundly grateful to call these extraordinary people: my friends.