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How Tragedy Made Me Eternally Grateful

How 2020 And A Family Tragedy Made Me Learn The True Meaning of Gratitude

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I would always get annoyed when people would say things along the lines of, “be grateful for what you have” or “gratitude changes everything”. To me, these felt like lines out of a cheesy, self-help planner or a poorly produced motivational YouTube video. I’m an incredibly self-aware person – almost to a fault – so in my mind, of course I was grateful. I know I’ve had an amazing life and have been blessed with an amazing family, boyfriend and handful of friends, so whenever someone reminds me to “be grateful”, I can’t help but feel annoyed. 

Maybe I get easily irritated by such things because I’ve lived in Los Angeles for close to a decade and very early on embraced the city’s new age, self help community. I have gone through what feels like almost too much talk therapy (if there’s such a thing), visited tons of “energy healers”, talked to psychics, practiced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, attended motivational workshops, acting schools, and honestly anything that even remotely resembled self help work. I’ve studied the positive effects that crystals can have on your body and spirit, I’ve meditated with shamans, and I’ve kept a “gratitude journal” where I write ten things I’m grateful for every morning and night. I’ve completed countless self help programs, practiced yoga, and attended spiritual retreats. 

The thing is, even after all of these years of self help work, at the beginning of 2020, I was pretty miserable. I found myself continually complaining about my career despite the fact that it was advancing. In fact, by February of this year, I had launched a successful podcast, signed with a high profile acting agent, and officially began ramping up the production company I had launched with my boyfriend. I had even developed a television show concept that I was pitching to big television studios with my writing partner. Despite all of this, however, I would still wake up every morning with a pounding in my chest and a small voice in the back of my head that loved to tell me, “you’re not doing enough. You’re a failure”. Sure, I had battled these feelings of self-doubt for years, but they didn’t get any less difficult to deal with. That’s why when someone would tell me to focus on gratitude I’d want to slap them. Because I HAD been grateful. And it wasn’t working! 

Something major needed to happen to wake me up, to snap me out of this “funk” I had been in for honestly, over five years. 2020 was that something. When March of 2020 hit, my world – as well as so many others’ – had pretty much overnight, been flipped upside down. With the closing of most businesses in the city, and the increase in Covid-19 cases, came extreme panic. My fellow co-workers, friends and family were lost and terrified. I wanted to be close to my family, but they lived across the country, and I was worried about spreading the virus to my parents. After flip-flopping back and forth, my boyfriend and I finally decided to board a plane – with what felt like the last N95 masks in the world and dishwashing gloves – and flew to Lake Norman, a small area outside of Charlotte. My parents had just finished building what they described as their “dream home”, and we’d be safe there until this all passed (which I remember telling my boyfriend would be “absolutely no more than three weeks”). Thinking about that now makes me laugh. 

We were safe and with one another, and had all tested negative for Covid. I was grateful. However, within a week or so, my fears and doubts about my career began to sneak up on me and pretty much, metaphorically attack my psyche. If I had left LA, did that mean I had completely given up on my career? Did I stick it out the entertainment industry for ten years only to just become a total failure? How was I going to make money, let alone “make a name for myself”, when the whole world was shut down and the chances of me booking an acting gig during this time were slim to none? How was I supposed to stay creative and funny (I’m a comedian), when the world was falling apart? I found myself dwelling on these same questions over and over again, while struggling to come up with a game plan to move forward. 

Luckily, around July, I began to book some writing gigs, and my boyfriend and I had decided to build up our production company with the extra time we had. We even decided to rent an apartment in Charlotte and move our things out of Los Angeles – just until Covid passed. We flew back to LA, packed up our lives, and shipped our belongings across the country to Charlotte. I was going to use this newfound time and perspective to re-think what I would do with my acting career, and save up money while I could. 

The world works in mysterious ways, however, because as soon as I began to feel like my life was coming together, a tragedy struck. One night in October, my boyfriend and I decided to stay the night at my parent’s house. I was tired and, once again, burnt out from worrying about what I was going to do about my career, and just wanted to sleep. At around 2:30 AM I woke to a loud THUD. The moment I opened my eyes, I saw my mom standing in front of my bed. “GET UP, THERE’S A FIRE!” she screamed. As my sleep wore off, I realized that my room had been filled with smoke. It was so heavy, I could only see a few inches in front of me and the smell was so strong I couldn’t inhale without burning my throat. Without thinking, I grabbed my dog, helped my parents get their dogs, sprinted down the stairs and out the house and called 911. An hour and a half later, my family and I were standing in the middle of the street, barefoot and half dressed, watching our family home burn to the ground. All of our childhood memorabilia and items that had been handed down from my grandparents and great-grandparents, had been destroyed. 

I watched my dad as he continued to run back and forth between my family and the firefighters and then our burning home, desperate to do something, to save anything he could, but unable to. I watched my mom sob while holding a jacket that a neighbor had wrapped around her. Why, God? Why us? Why now? I found myself asking over and over again. By 5 AM, we had gone to a hotel down the street and began to wash the thick layer of ash from our bodies. As I watched the black residue filter into the shower’s drain, I couldn’t help but be grateful. Yes, we had lost so many things, but we were alive. No one was hurt. We made it out. And we were all together. 

The following days passed in what felt like a total blur. As my parents attempted to slowly piece their lives back together, I helped them however I could. At the end of each day, when I returned to my apartment, I couldn’t help but notice that the small, self-defeating voice that loved to whisper in my ear late at night, had disappeared. Sure, I had been so busy and preoccupied worrying about my parents and sister that I didn’t have time to dwell on my career. But there was something else that had changed. I realized I had suddenly began to feel more at peace. And dare I say it, grateful. And not that phony, “my life is amazing!!” gratitude that I felt was forced upon me in therapy. What I began to feel for the first time in my life was a genuine, grounded feeling of gratitude. Yes my family’s life was in no way back together again. In fact, it’s been nearly two months, and they’re still living out of a hotel. However, despite the fact that they’re still unsettled and unsure of whether or not they’re going to re-build their home, we all feel okay. 

A firefighter who had been on the scene when my house was burning called my mom the other day and asked how she was doing. “We’re okay,” she said. He was on speaker phone and I couldn’t help but eaves drop on the conversation. “Well ma’am, I just want to let you know that you and your family sure are lucky you managed to get out of there safely”. He went on to explain that if we had remained in the house for even just five more minutes, we wouldn’t have made it. “Fires like that are so toxic, you’re truly lucky ya’ll escaped. People pass out in these situations all the time from carbon monoxide poisoning. Someone must’ve been looking over ya’ll,” he said. 

I walked outside of their hotel and took a deep breath. We really were lucky. All five of us in the home that night, including our three dogs, escaped one of the worst fires the town had seen in years by the skin of our teeth. “Thank you, God,” I whispered. And this time, I really meant it. 

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