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Grief & Gratitude: What To Do When Thanksgiving Sucks

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday for people grieving over the loss of loved ones. After all, thanksgiving is about what we have. Grief is about what we lost.

I think this complexity is especially true if you’ve lost parents. They cooked the meal. They provided the centerpiece – love and warmth. And they provided the place, often our childhood homes.

I’m not going to pretend that Thanksgiving doesn’t suck sometimes. I great pall fell upon me last year. It took me by surprise. In 10 years, I’ve only had one Thanksgiving that felt gloriously normal.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the premise of the holiday. I don’t think any of us miss the value of gratitude. We just can’t always conjure it on command. We can say the words. But do we feel them?

I’ve been debating whether gratitude is a gift or something we generate in our minds by focusing on our blessings. My husband says it’s a gift. I remember a time while I was my mother’s caregiver and I was super stressed by responsibility. I couldn’t manufacture gratitude, and then one day I felt a deep satisfaction for what I had and where I was, despite the chaos. It was a gift.

I also remember lying in my bed, sick with chronic fatigue, and dwelling on simple blessings. I was warm and dry. I was safe. I knew my parents loved me, and if I lost everything, I had them. I thought about what I had, not about what I’d lost – my health. I was tired day after day. I felt like I’d been beat up, but gratitude fed my soul. I wasn’t healed but my spirit was lifted. I was far better with gratitude than without it.

Gratitude became the fuel that powered my life. I often turn to this practice of dwelling on my blessings – and dwelling on God’s love and his acts – and on what is right about my life rather than what is wrong. This is an amazing feat for someone who considered herself a pessimist – no, a realist. And perhaps in this sense, gratitude is a gift. Like a farm, I simply readied the ground for God’s gift of gratitude.

So what do we do with Thanksgiving? Our inclination may be to ignore our loss and not to be a wet blanket on the party. Denial isn’t going to help. You know, grief and gratitude can co-exist. Give space to each one.

One Thanksgiving after the feast with my in-laws, I pulled out old slides of my parents’ time in Japan and projected them onto our living room wall. I’d never seen those photos before. I missed my folks. But in the only way I knew how, I shared a little of Thanksgiving with them.

How will you make space for what your loved one this Thanksgiving? What blessings will you dwell upon to comfort and sustain your spirit?


Copyright © 2016 by Toni Lepeska. All rights reserved.

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