Thanksgiving and Thanksgrieving

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.”

UPDATE:

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.

From Andrea:
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…
http://segullah.org/daily-special/give-thanks-for-this/

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.

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* 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.

(Part 2) Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars

As I said in part one, grief can’t tell time, but it  can — and does — obsess over calendars.

Some calendar-activated grief triggers are predictable and public, like holidays and other annual events. No matter which of the 365 days begins a mourner’s first year of grief, your friend who has lost a loved one will soon ache through the first holidays in mourning.

Notice I didn’t say “the first holiday in mourning”? No, I said “the first holidays in mourning.” Plural.

Whether your friend mourns someone who died on January one, Leap Day, the Fourth of July, or New Year’s Eve, for the next year, every first holiday without the loved one will be difficult.* Whether it’s a national holiday or less celebrated annual observance, if the day is highlighted on calendars or merchandised in stores, chances are the days leading up to it will be filled with anticipatory pain.

As each holiday approaches throughout the year, acknowledge your awareness of the loved one’s absence. It’s easy to do. Make a phone call, write a brief note, send an IM,  email, or text. It can be simple: “I know this is your first Christmas without John. You’re in my thoughts and I’d love to hear yours. I’m here for you.”

Then follow through. Be there. Call or text, asking for the opportunity to hear memories about the deceased or their holiday traditions.

There will be private calendar triggers for your friend’s bereavement, too. Annual family events like birthdays and  anniversaries or family reunions can be unbearable to the newly bereaved. As much as I needed and craved time with extended family after my mother’s death and then again after my husband’s, it also hurt to be around them. It didn’t feel right without Mom or Hubby. Family dynamics had shifted. Nothing felt the same.

A couple from church visited one day with a long question that surprised me. “Will you tell us your birthday, your [late] husband’s birthday, your children’s birthdays, and your what day is your anniversary?” The wife pulled a 3×5 card and a pencil from her purse and she wrote each date.

A couple of months later, one of my out-of-state daughters called to say she’d gotten a birthday card from the couple, and I recalled their earlier question. Since then, they have sent each of our children a birthday greeting, and they’ve acknowledged my wedding anniversary. They have texted awareness of holidays, too.

“Little” gestures such as these offer big comfort and consolation all year.

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*[This doesn’t mean the same holidays will be “fine” once the first year has passed. Sometimes the second year — when shock has faded and the survivors’ new reality has set in — can be as hard as (or harder than) the first year. Holidays — whenever they fall — are hard. Remember: For your friend who lost a loved one, all of life’s celebrations have been forever altered.]

Happy Thanks-Grieving: Grief-Enhanced Gratitude

Wait! I promise this won’t be morose.

Growing up, I thought my mother coined the phrase “attitude of gratitude.” After a rough day at school, she’d hug me and listen to every ranting word. She let me go on (and on) until I’d vented my frustrations. But then … (I’m smiling and shaking my head at my little-girl-self as I type this …) Then Mom always (and I mean always) said, “Now tell me three good things that happened.” She’d sit beside me, with patient stillness, until I’d squeezed three good things from my heart through my (sometimes clenched) reluctant lips.

As much as I wanted her consolation, there were some days I stifled my complaints just so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge “three good things.”

I’ve heard it said that you can’t feel badly while expressing gratitude, but through grief I’ve found that isn’t so. After Mom died, I felt simultaneous, deep gratitude for the time I spent with her — and despondency that there was no more time together. I felt grateful, humble joy that (of all the women on the planet) she was my mother — but I lamented over how few my almost-eight- and three-year-old daughters’ memories of their grandma would be and that my yet-unborn third child would not know her at all. I thanked heaven aloud and in my heart that Mom no longer suffered the indignities of cancer’s claws — while I sobbed over the gaping absence of her presence in our lives.

Gratitude and Grief (which runs deeper than “sadness”) walked beside me, both holding my hands.

A few hours after my husband’s sudden death, in the awful stillness that was yet hours ahead of dawn, on the darkest night of my existence, I opened a spiral notebook and began to write. That content is too personal, too sacred to share, but on those pages (starting, inexplicably, on the last page and working my way forward) I listed blessings, all the things I had to be thankful for, all “the good things” in my life. Doing so brought me forward into that day’s light.

In the hours, days, weeks, months, and years that followed, those grateful truths have played a key role in my efforts to move forward through each day. Whether I spoke my grateful truths aloud, wrote them in my journal, or offered them in silent prayer, each soothed my aching a little more as I sent them out from the core of my soul. However, like so much of “recovery” from grief, their effective balm only worked applied in one direction. When others told me the same things, the same ideas rankled worse than driving the wrong way over the tire-piercing spikes in a parking lot exit.

So please, please, don’t tell the bereaved what they have to be grateful for, unless they ask you to.

three good holiday candle things-min

Sharing three good things about a deceased loved one can be cathartic, but being told to be grateful can hurt mourners more. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

As you comfort your friends through their grief this Thanksgiving, remember to listen with patient stillness. Let your grieving friends rant and vent. Then, after calm returns, gently invite them to share “three good things” from memories of their loved ones.

I think they’ll be grateful you asked.

***

Note:

I’d already begun drafting this post when I discovered the following article, geared more for the bereaved themselves than for those offering them your support. If you’re trying to understand what to say and do to help console grieving friends, family, classmates or coworkers, read it for yourself. Consider passing it along to them.

Megan Devine offers practical advice  to those experiencing their first holiday season without a loved one: “The grieving introvert + the holiday season: a different survival guide.”