For those who celebrated Thanksgiving this past week, my hopes are that your holiday was wonderful and spent surrounded by those with whom you love the very most!
Holidays can be hard to celebrate when you are grieving and missing someone whom you deeply love. I believe Thanksgiving, specifically, can be a trigger for those who are newly grieving (or honestly, even for those of us who are years out from our loss.) After all, Thanksgiving is a holiday centered around counting our blessings and finding gratitude within our lives. Sometimes it’s hard to set aside all of the hardships we have experienced to solely focus on only the great things that give us gratitude in life.
I have always really struggled when people have tried being supportive by offering the advice of …”I know this is hard, but think about all the wonderful things life has given you” … “Be grateful for what you do have”. To me, these are both just more phrases that can be thrown on top of the overly used cliche pile. They really don’t accomplish anything, unless you are purposely trying to invalidate somebody’s grief and trying to make them feel further misunderstand and alone.
Yesterday, as I celebrated Thanksgiving with my husband and two earth side daughters, I received an email from Rachel Lewis – a speaker and author – who also happens to be a loss mother. Her email was entitled “Honoring your grief with your gratitude“. Her recent email resonated so much with me. It spoke to both grief and gratitude and their role on the grieving community during the Thanksgiving season. Rachel laid out how so much is expected of the griever to fully set aside their sorrows and only focus on their gratitudes. Rachel continues to say that setting expectations like this is not healthy, nor is it a grievers responsibility to forget their grief to appease others. Gratitude is a beautiful thing, but one thing gratitude doesn’t do is replace grief.
I am so tired of people expecting the bereaved to grow out of their grief – as if grief is a bad thing and only appropriate for a certain amount of time. I am so tired of people expecting the bereaved to behave contrary to how they actually feel, because their grief makes others uncomfortable. I truly believe that those who have experienced great loss or hardship are often times those who outwardly show appreciation and gratitude the most. We need to stop identifying grief as a bad thing that needs to be “fixed” and instead embrace it and know that grief and gratitude are not mutually exclusive – both can exist simultaneously. And if on Thanksgiving – of all days – your gratitude has to share space with your grief, then so be it.
gratitude – the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
Perhaps showing gratitude is also showing compassion to those who are struggling and not expecting them to be or act differently than who they are. Maybe the greatest way society can show gratitude (not just on Thanksgiving, but every day) is by showing kindness and acceptance to those they love the most. I think we can all learn to better appreciate those we care for – despite their flaws, or despite their grief, and learn to have gratitude for them. Because we love them. So we should love ALL of them. Grief will always be a part my life and I never want to have the expectation pushed onto me that to grieve is contrary to being full of gratitude.
Honoring your grief with gratitude
With Thanksgiving today, there can be a lot of pressure: Pressure to keep up a happy face. Pressure to “protect” everyone around you from the depths of your grief. Pressure to be so grateful you don’t think about what you’ve lost, only what you’ve gained.
The problem is, absolutely none of that is healthy … nor is it your responsibility.
I recently wrote the following on social media about the limits of gratitude. In case it helped you embrace your grief this holiday (or better accept the grief of someone else), I thought I would share it here. (If you’d like to see the original post so you can share, you can do so here.)
Giving thanks is a beautiful practice. Counting your blessings can renew some joy. But there is one thing gratitude doesn’t do (nor should it do.) And that is — replace grief.
When you see someone hurting, of course, you want them to feel better. That makes you a compassionate, caring person. And that empathy can prompt you to want to remind that person to focus on the good things they still have.
It may sound like, “I know you miss your baby, but remember the three you have in your arms, dear. They love you and need you. Just focus on what you do have in front of you.”
It makes sense, right? The desire to spare someone from painful feelings and to try to focus on things that bring joy.
But when we try to replace painful feelings with joyful ones — it doesn’t replace a painful event with a joyful event. You see, the circumstances remain the same. Their child is still dead. (Or their parent, or their friend, or their pet … there are many kinds of losses that cause grief.)
So when you ask a person to focus on what they are grateful for — in a sense, you ask them to feel in a way that contradicts their circumstances.
There are a few underlying assumptions to this ask that are worth breaking down:
1. It assumes grief is bad. Grief hurts — yes. But grief is the byproduct of love. It is a God-given process by design to help us navigate a world in which we are not immortal and we are not immune to loss. Grief sometimes feels bad, and sometimes feels good. Sometimes breaks apart, and sometimes binds. Sometimes destroys, and sometimes heals. Grief is many things — but grief is not bad, it is not a problem, and it does not need to be fixed.
2. It assumes that if you are grieving, you are not grateful. This logical fallacy is painful at best. I don’t know a more grateful group of people than those who have lost. Once you lose someone, suddenly, you can’t help but appreciate the miracle of what remains. You realize how precious, how fleeting, and how tenuous these beautiful gifts in your life are. So there is an abundance of gratitude for all that remains — and even gratitude for the person you are grieving. But it does not erase the grief.
3. It assumes that gratitude is always the right (immediate) response. Demanding gratitude immediately after loss is toxic positivity. It glosses over the profound pain, their need to express that pain, and their need for support as they do so. When you ask someone to just focus on the good — you make it so that you are no longer a safe person to talk to about all the hard feelings that are real and must be faced and expressed. Rather than expect gratitude, be there for that person no matter how they come.
You can grieve — and you can be grateful. And the one will never erase the other.
I hope that today, as you count your many blessings — you also take the time to honor what and who you’ve lost.
Hold space for your grief today. Light a candle in honor of your loved one. Set a place for them at the table. Talk openly about them. Allow tears as freely as you allow laughter and smiling.
And most of all: Honor your own needs today. There are no hard and fast rules telling you what you *must* do today. So if suddenly you can’t handle the family dinner, give yourself permission to leave. If counting your blessings aloud at the table is too much, then count the ways you love the one you are missing. If all the traditions are too triggering, start a new tradition.
Only you are the expert on your grief. Only you know what you need. And only you can communicate those needs to others around you to help ensure your needs are met.
I am hoping you have a gentle day — one that holds as much space for your grief as it does for your gratitude.