TJ Burch opened his palm to reveal two pebble-shaped objects. One was yellow; the other, blue. Each had an impression in the middle.
“Pretty cool, aren’t they?” Burch asked, handing them over. When you put the tip of your finger into the concave of each pebble, you detect a series of faint grooves. These are the thumbprints of Burch’s late son Nolan, who died at 18 four years ago, the victim of a fraternity hazing night gone wrong.
“You can actually feel it,” pointed out Burch, an expressive man who smiles more than you might expect. So does his wife, Kim, who is standing at his side in their Amherst home. The Burches’ hearts are cracked but unshattered. The anger, confusion and sorrow they feel over their son’s death as a West Virginia University freshman is still palpable.
But so is another emotion: gratitude.
At a time of year when people try to refresh their lives and resolve to improve, and coming out of a holiday season that tends to amplify both joys and sorrows, there’s a lesson to be drawn from the Burches' experience: Gratitude – which one researcher describes as feeling wonder, thankfulness and appreciation – is a choice. If you choose it, you can improve your life — even at the worst of times.
For the Burches, those pebbles are a reminder.
Ever since the Burches received that harrowing phone call in November 2014 that their son was in the hospital, questions have flooded their brains: How, and why, did Nolan consume so much alcohol that his still-alive body lay motionless on a frat-house table? Why didn’t any of the guys around him call quickly for medical help?
Even four years later, they don’t have satisfactory answers for those questions. But they do have reasons to be grateful.
Nolan spent two days in the hospital before he died of alcohol poisoning. He wasn’t awake for any of it, but for his mother, father and teen sister Alex, those final hours were stippled with thankful moments. Dozens of students lined up outside his room, visiting him in pairs, saying tearful farewells even as Nolan, who was on life support, couldn’t respond. Nolan’s lungs, liver and kidney were used to save the lives of other patients.
Meanwhile, the hospital staff used a clay-like material to create molds of Nolan’s thumbprints. They also made matching yellow and blue handprints on paper with Nolan and his mother, father, and sister. Those handprints are framed and displayed in the living room of the Burches' home. To express their gratitude, the Burches made sure that a portion of their $250,000 settlement with the university benefited those parties. They sent $5,000 to the the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, and $20,000 to WVU Children’s Hospital Critical Care Services, which includes the staff that made the prints.
“They took such good care of us,” TJ Burch said, “and our family.”
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Gratitude has a long-held but slightly less-visible place in a self-help landscape dominated by books, videos and courses that teach about the virtues of grit, passion, mindfulness and embracing failure.
In 2007, the researcher Robert A. Emmons published the book “Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.” He describes gratitude for “life’s blessings” as a “sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation.” Gratitude, he writes, “is an approach to life that can be freely chosen for oneself.”
Happiness is not a pure choice. Emmons cites research that suggests we all have a genetically determined happiness “set point” — an innate level of happiness to which we will likely return after a big life event (the birth of a child, the death of a loved one) elevates or lowers it. This set point, research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests, accounts for half of our happiness level. The other half is determined partially by circumstances (10 percent) and intentional activity (40 percent).
That intentional activity is where gratitude plays a role. It’s the Burches finding positive moments amid tragedy. It’s Barack Obama, during his presidency, cold-calling troops around the holidays to say thank you. It’s Nathan Peterman, who was ridiculed for throwing interceptions during his short stint as a Buffalo Bills quarterback, maintaining an optimistic, blessed-to-be-here attitude.
How did Peterman, who was cut in November and joined the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad in December, manage to stay upbeat in the face of harsh criticism? His tools: faith and gratitude.
“I believe God has a good plan for all of our lives, so when things happen differently than I imagined, I still had a choice in how I would respond,” Peterman wrote in a text. “I could be bitter and let negative thoughts consume my life, or choose to be thankful in all circumstances and keep working and believing that there is a good plan for my life. I’ve found the only way to live my life is the latter.”
Recognizing thankfulness, wonder and appreciation is a powerful practice even when life is smooth. In his 2018 book “Thanks a Thousand,” the journalist A.J. Jacobs takes a “gratitude journey” to thank as many people as he can find who are responsible for his cup of coffee: the Colombian farmer, the trucker who hauled the beans, the person who designed the coffee cup lid, the Manhattan barista and nearly a thousand others.
Now, Jacobs takes two minutes every day to focus on often-mundane things that go right. During his phone conversation for this story, he was in his New York home and offered an example: “I’m sitting here and I’m grateful this chair is not collapsing,” he said. “I’m grateful the phone works. I’m happy that it’s not raining.” He mentioned the bland Uncle Sam’s cereal on the table in front of him. “I am grateful for it, because it is definitely healthy,” he said. “It’s basically like eating gravel, but it has very low sugar.”
In “Thanks a Thousand,” Jacobs points out that our brains tend to notice what goes wrong more than what goes right. “The negativity bias is one of the worst parts of our brain,” he said. “Gratitude, I think, is the best weapon against it.”
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John Rzeznik, lead singer of the Goo Goo Dolls, has long used appreciation to win his inner battles. For years, when performing on the road with band co-founder Robby Takac and their bandmates, Rzeznik positioned an equipment road case on the side of the stage, where he could glance over and see it. He had scribbled a message to himself on the side of the case: “You can always go back.”
“Back” would be to the East Side of Buffalo, where he grew up in a tough home where drinking and corporal punishment were the norm, money was scant, and outward love was scarce. Rzeznik lost both of his parents as a teenager, but he’s also lived a blessed life in many ways. He is an alcoholic, but has been clean for more than four years. Rzeznik long thought he would never become a father, but after he stopped drinking, he and wife Melina had their daughter Lili, who just turned 2.
He’s thankful, too, for the music he has written – iconic pop numbers like “Iris” “Slide,” and “Broadway” – and the fans who will pay to hear the Goo Goo Dolls play them.
“Dude, those songs are a gift,” Rzeznik said during an interview last fall. “I’ve got a nice house. I already put the money away for my kid to go to school.”
But sometimes, Rzeznik admitted, he gets tense. It typically happens on long tours, when he’s been away from home and misses his wife and daughter. “It’s mostly when I get tired, or when I’m getting lonely being away from home,” he said. “I start to get frustrated easily.” Sometimes, Rzeznik admitted, he has to “take a timeout, like a toddler.” He laughed.
He could go back. Being grateful seems like a better choice.
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Gratitude heals in ways that apologies cannot. Several years ago, when Susan Pazzaglia learned her teenage daughter, Jessica, was gay, she reacted harshly. At one point she threw holy water into Jessica’s bedroom in the family’s East Amherst home. She wanted to scare out the evil spirits.
“I would say the worst things to my daughter,” she said, “that I will regret forever.”
But today, Pazzaglia is close with Jessica and has become an ardent supporter of LGBTQ causes. The healing came through a long process of therapy and self-realization — and also through gratitude to her other three children, who stuck by Jessica.
At one point during the family’s interview with The News, Pazzaglia turned to her son, Will, who has written a children’s book on acceptance, “The Boy With the Rainbow Heart.” “Thank God Jessica had you guys,” she said. “I’m thankful for that, because they are the ones probably too that helped me to do this full-circle change.”
Gratitude isn’t an antidote for negative emotions. It doesn’t neutralize or erase anger, fear or sorrow. But it can win out.
One month after Nolan’s death, on a December trip southward that took the Burches past the WVU campus, the family stopped outside the frat house. Kim Burch walked in and went from room to room, screaming “Who’s here?”
The frat house was empty of people except for one room, where a door was slightly ajar. Kim pushed it open wide and found inside the one young man who had actually tried to help her son. He wasn’t with the group when Nolan started drinking, but came in much later. Recognizing immediately that Nolan needed help, he tried to revive him as 911 was finally called.
It was too late, but he tried. He cared. Kim Burch knew that and was grateful for him. They embraced. Any anger she felt being in that building melted away.