Grief & Gratitude

I’m pretty sure there was a whoosh of glitter when the clock struck midnight on Halloween. The candy wrappers had barely settled before everything, everywhere was painted red and green. The holiday season is like that. Whoosh. Bang. Merry merry. And somewhere, in-between the pumpkins and evergreens is that turkey-ridden, gravy-covered, pie-crusted day of thanks.

I love the “unbutton your pants and eat comfort food to your heart’s content” part of the day. Even more, I love the expression of gratitude – especially when it is spoken out loud. There’s something about speaking your thanks in front of people you love that lets it take shape.

Several years ago, back before we were actually married, my husband and I hosted our first Thanksgiving. It was a big deal. We crammed family from both sides into our small home and made everything from scratch. We belong to Over-Achievers Anonymous, for the record.

That year, I also made placemats that said “I am thankful for:” and had a space to write up to five things. Yes, I’m that host that made everyone read them out loud, and it was awesome. But between the gratitude for family, faith and push-up bras (my brother-in-law!) was another aching thanks. My husband’s mother had passed the year before and we were all so grateful to have known her, love her and have learned from her.

Grief is a funny bedfellow. It appears in the saddest moments and the happiest moments. The holiday season is often one of the hardest for a griever. Under the tinsel and carols, the treats and tricks, the pie and sparkling cider is the low humming of absence. A person I love is not here for this.

A person I love is not here.

I remember the first Thanksgiving after my sister died. It fell only months after her death and around what should have been her 19th birthday. A well-meaning neighbor invited us to her house that year so we wouldn’t have to cook. But after the empty chair she set out, the burned broccoli smell throughout the house and the first initial of my sister’s name carved in the butter (true story), it was simply the worst.

After choking back tears that evening, we went to bed and woke up to my mom and dad cooking. It was the best turkey my mom ever made and one of the tastiest meals we’d ever enjoyed together as a family. We laughed, hard, at the day before. We laughed because we needed a break from crying. We laughed because we were still grateful to have each other.

It would be many years before I would feel gratitude while grieving my sister’s death. She was taken without warning, suddenly and violently. But as the dust would settle over the years, her absence became less about the way she died and more about the way she lived. I am and always will be forever grateful for having lived the first 18 years of life with her. I am forever grateful that she is a part of who I am. Gratitude slipped its hand into grief’s at some point, and they’ve walked side by side in my memory of her ever since.

Last year, I struggled with gratitude. When I slid into the chair at Thanksgiving I wanted to quietly hurry through the meal. I wore a blue and pink ribbon pin for my twins. They were supposed to be at dinner. Instead they had been born too soon to survive that spring. I was newly pregnant again, and I think the expectation was that I would be full of thanks. I didn’t want to disappoint my family, but I was racked with grief over the twins and uncertainty about the new life.

Instead, I embraced the grief. I knew from experience that it wasn’t going anywhere, but I also knew that at some point, gratitude would sidle up, too. And I am so very grateful that they were mine, even if for a short time. I am so very grateful for who they made me. I am grateful that they made me a mom.

As a seasoned griever (and grief therapist), I have one note to those who are supporting someone grieving this holiday season: let them take the lead. They may want to make their loved one’s favorite dish, or they may want to change all the old traditions, or keep the old traditions to a tee, or let the moment pass quietly, or not celebrate at all, or create a new memorial. The best thing you can do is show up, tell them you love them, say their loved one’s name, and then ask specifically, “Would you like to do x?” This will give them the chance to say yes, no, or come up with their own idea.

If you are grieving this year, be kind to yourself. Give room to feel whatever may come – grief or gratitude or both. I promise, whatever it feels like, you are not alone. This year, my heart aches for my twins, and my sister, and my mother-in-law, and my grandparents. But it is also swelling with gratitude for my new son, my husband, my family, my friends, and the fact that my heart has been given the chance to love in loss and in life. My hope and prayer is that your grieving heart will be given that small peace, too.

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