Thanksgiving: A Different Kind of Gratitude After Loss.
Now that it’s over, can we talk about Thanksgiving, and the onslaught of the holiday season?
Some people truly do love Thanksgiving, but I would wager that most people felt some conflict around it. There are family obligations, old wounds that emerge, the frantic need to cook a big meal, the traditions you kept up because it seemed worse not to.
Feeling stressed at the holidays isn’t about loving or not loving your family, but more about chafing against the expectations and obligations of the season. That’s true for the big holiday we just passed, and all the ones to come. When you add grief to the holiday mix, it adds a whole new, and more complicated, dynamic.
Thanksgiving can be the hardest holiday of the bunch. It’s a holiday centered on community, and all those big gatherings just seem to highlight the empty place at the table. When someone you love is missing, it can feel impossible to be interested in turkey, or whose turn it is to bring the serving dishes. The focus on being grateful can also wear on you.
If you struggled with this one, here are some ways you might help yourself through the rest of this season.
Always remember that you can choose to ignore any holiday, no matter what anyone else says. The first Thanksgiving after my partner died in an accident, I volunteered at the soup kitchen. It felt better — more congruent — to be in a place where no one needed me to speak, no one needed anything of me except to hold up my part of the serving line.
Finding things that serve both you and others can be a neat way of surviving this one.
If you’d like to think about new traditions for next year (or anytime someone tells you to be grateful for what you’ve got), let’s take gratitude apart for a minute. In this culture, we tend to use it as an admonition: “Eat your peas! Other people in this world are starving! Be grateful for what you’ve got!”
Gratitude gets presented to grieving folks as a cure for their ills: “At least you had them for as long as you did. Be thankful for the memories.” Parents grieving the death of a child are often told to be thankful for their remaining children. None of this is helpful. Gratitude and grief don’t cancel each other out, they sit side by side.
There are ways to celebrate and acknowledge the holiday that are in keeping with the theme, but don’t unintentionally make things worse. Since gratitude doesn’t work as an antidote to grief, what if we took the theme of gratitude and saw it as a companion, not a commandment? It’s far more helpful to find gratitude for the things that help us survive, that give us even a bit of comfort.
There are so many things in this life to be thankful for. For example, “I am so glad for the Off button on my phone, and the silent-mode option. Thank you, technology, for creating this bubble of peace and silence around me.” Or, “I’m thankful for the birds outside my window, for bringing me company and beauty today.”
Finding things that companion you, exactly where you are, can be a great way to practice the theme of Thanksgiving season. Gratitude can be a companion rather than a commandment.
If you’re trying to support someone you love through the holidays, remember that you can’t make their holiday good. Reminding them to be grateful for what still exists isn’t going to help — in fact, it can make your friend or family member feel worse. Instead, you might ask how they’re feeling today, and let them know you’re willing to support them no matter what they need to do to make it through.
If they’re having a hard time, don’t try to cheer them up. Instead, companion and support them right inside their sadness without trying to fix it. You can even be a role model for good support-a-friend skills, interrupting dear old Uncle Harry’s diatribe about happiness and gratitude being a choice. There are lots of ways to be a fantastic friend throughout this season.
Whether you are missing someone who would be the life of the party, or you are missing someone who shared your love of quiet acknowledgment over a big, communal gathering, this holiday season might add some to your grief. It doesn’t have to be a terrible time, but it might take a little work to get through the day with your heart and mind intact.
My hope is that, however you decide to spend your weeks from the fourth Thursday in November through January 2nd, they’re filled with small acts of beauty and companionship.
Megan Devine is on a mission to help people love each other better. A psychotherapist, speaker, and grief advocate, she’s the founder of Refuge In Grief, a hub of grief education and outreach, where she leads people through some of the most devastating times of their lives. She is the author of the new book, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand (Sounds True, October 2017), and lives in Portland, Oregon. For more, visit her website.