Grief and Gratitude

In this time of Thanksgiving, I’m attempting to answer the question, “Can I be grateful for my grief?” in the wake of my beloved grandma’s recent death. She was more of a mother to me than a grandmother. She was nearly ninety-four and had lived what everyone calls “a good long life”. Yes, that’s true. A long, healthy life with a natural decline, a natural end-of-life process, a natural death. There is beauty in that. So much beauty. And yet the fact is, come Thanksgiving Day, she will have been gone for exactly four weeks. A month already. This feels improbable; impossible even, which means that along with the turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, we will also serve up helpings of fresh loss with a side of grief.

What do we do with our losses during the time of year that is overflowing with gratitude and hope and joy as our culture’s collective wishes for the season? What do we do with grief that has accompanied us for minutes or days, years or possibly decades that influences how we navigate the potential pitfalls of celebrations and good cheer when we’re not feeling it. How do we navigate gatherings that our loved ones would have attended but now are not, or the quiet nights of winter stillness that leave us companioned by the acuteness of our absences more than our blessings?

We start small.

We can feel our feet on the firm ground, close our eyes, and take a few nice, deep breaths. We can come into the present moment and practice giving thanks for what is right in front of us – perhaps the roof over our heads, the air in our lungs, and a meal to nourish us. Then, with self-kindness and absolutely no expectation, perhaps we can imagine a little bigger. Maybe we can remember our loved one more publicly – to set a place at our table for them, to honor them by serving one of their favorite dishes, to raise a glass in gratitude for their life and how we loved them so well. We can create a community for the commingling of our grief and our joy by sharing stories of favorite moments together, or of how we are especially remembering them today. The truth is, while our loved one is gone from us physically, we are still in relationship with them; it’s just different. Sometimes it takes a willingness and some creativity to figure out different ways to engage them, bridging the distance between here and there. Lighting a candle in their memory. Having the kids draw them a hand-print turkey. Whatever you feel nudged to do…do it.

Encourage your circle of loved ones to acknowledge the absence you all feel by honoring the energetic imprint of their presence. Sometimes we think it will be too hard to open up when we have tried so hard to hold it in. But even if no one is talking about who’s missing, everyone is thinking about them. So, why not allow grief to be a guest at your table?

Grief is a roller coaster, yes. But if we create hospitable space for it rather than turn our back on it, it may just take us on a ride we don’t expect, in a good way. For me, while the emotional landscape of Thanksgiving feels uncertain and a bit daunting, in this moment (being kind enough with myself to recognize that any other moment may not feel so brave) I’m choosing to reside in curiosity by inviting grief to join us, even though I have no idea how this might turn out. My truest hope is that we feel my grandma with us, graciously assuming her place at the table that we’ve set for her, and that joy and laughter find their way to us in large and small ways, alongside the very real possibility of tears.

In the quiet moments, I hope not to resist what comes, and to see every brightness and every sorrow as a gift of this sacred adventure of being human.

And give thanks.

May this Thanksgiving nourish and soothe you, heart and soul, in memory of all you miss. And may all of the guests at your holiday table – even grief – be engaged and honored, not merely endured.

as originally published for End in Mind on November 21, 2018