This is my fifth widowed Thanksgiving, and it’s the first year I’ve been up to preparing a traditional meal for our family. Extended family circumstances meant we had our celebration on Sunday, half a week before “real” Thanksgiving Day. It was a wonderful gathering of family and friends, and in almost every moment I basked in watching loved ones laughing, talking, teasing … almost like the years B.G. — Before Grief. Even so, I don’t think I could have mustered the energy — or the will for it — had we met on “real” Thanksgiving Day.
From the earliest hours after my husband’s death I’ve been grateful for many tender mercies that blessed me through my darkest hours. That doesn’t mean I’ve walked around like Pollyanna playing “the glad game” over the pains and practical problems of grieving. There are many, many aspects of my husband’s never-diagnosed mental and neurological deterioration and his sudden, unexpected death that I cannot honestly say I’m grateful for. (Perhaps not “yet.” Perhaps not ever.) But I’ve seen sparkles of sunlight (loving gestures from family and friends, personal and professional growth, life lessons learned, and multiple mini-miracles of circumstance) while stepping through otherwise impenetrable days. I continue to appreciate each pinprick glint of goodness as it comes.
HOWEVER, I had to see those glimmers of gratitude for myself. Hearing others say, “You should be grateful that…” or “Aren’t you thankful for…” did not help when grief was a raw, festering sore in every step I took. It didn’t help while I began learning to live with grief’s limp, moving forward but with faltering, often errant steps. It still doesn’t help now that I walk (and sometimes run — though briefly) with my grief-acquired gait.
What did help, and what still helps, is when people reach out to me, when they acknowledge their awareness that grief has altered my path. When grieving souls (like mine) are ready and able to lift their eyes to see the beauty or the genius in the surrounding landscape, they will. They will know when they are ready to look up. You will not. Do not tell your grieving friends where they “should” look — you’ll distract them from placing their wounded feet on safe terrain.
Instead, let them know you’re nearby with your arms outstretched, ready for them to grab hold if they need somewhere to lean. Instead of wishing them a “Happy Thanksgiving,” especially if the loss is as recent as two years, say, “I’m thinking of you on this Thanksgiving Day. I know it’s different. I know it’s hard. I’m here for you.”
I’m amending this post to include the words of my friend, Andrea Rediske. She and her family have experienced their own battles with love and loss as they grieved their oldest son’s years of medical crises and as they now grieve his still recent passing in February 2014*. I asked Andrea’s permission to share her poignant, clear, insightful perspective to help better educate those who wish to support grieving friends, whether they grieve impending or final losses.
I wrote this blog post about 4 years ago, after Ethan had had a particularly difficult year. I wish I could summon the same anguished serenity that I felt when I wrote this. I DO have many things to be grateful for: my husband, children, family, friends, my health, the opportunity to pursue my PhD, and many more. But am I grateful for nearly 12 years of witnessing my son fight every day for his life? Am I grateful to have sat at his bedside when he died? Am I grateful for the grief that regularly blindsides me? Nope, nope, nope, nope…
When grief “regularly blindsides” your bereaved friends (as it does with the regularity of a clock ticking off every second of every day), be sure you offer them your outstretched arm in that darkness. Bite your tongue if tempted to preach Pollyanna practices. Instead of telling mourners what to be grateful for, listen to what they have to say — without judging them for saying it.
* Please see https://tealashes.com/2014/02/21/ethan-rediske-act-supports-my-grieving-friend-and-many-other-families/ to learn more about Ethan Rediske.