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Keep your attitude of gratitude--even during grief

Find something to be thankful for? When I'm grieving and in pain? Come on...!

Unsuspecting dinner guests?
Ann Ulrich Miller

With Thanksgiving’s approach my mind is inundated with many memories shared with my late husband. This time of year is especially significant in that three of our sons have birthdays at Thanksgiving time. Ron (his oldest) and Scott (my youngest) will both celebrate their birthday on Thanksgiving Day this year, and Randy (his youngest) the day before.

Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday for many years. It evokes pleasant memories of childhood, in which family gatherings with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins shared a splendid feast in our house. I’ve always looked forward to the special dishes passed down over the generations. Aunt Hazel’s dinner rolls continue to be on the menu each year, and even though they are tedious to make, I love creating them and watching the reactions of those who taste them for the first time.

Last year was my first Thanksgiving without Ethan. It had only been weeks since my husband's passing. I felt very alone at the time and welcomed the invitation from my stepson and his wife to join them in their home again. Ethan and I had gone there for Thanksgiving the year before and it had been a joyous occasion, even if it was a bit exhausting for my terminally ill husband.

However, I realized it was not the same without him there. The family was warm and compassionate toward me and I got through the day all right, but I made the excuse to leave earlier than I had planned. Getting a grip on my emotions was a challenge and everything was a bit overwhelming, to say the least.

This year I find myself looking back at those happy times we shared and wondering if I will ever feel that way again. I live far from his family now, and my own is scattered so that it’s unlikely there will be a big dinner as in past years. Even my oldest son, who lives in my town with his wife and baby son, have plans to go to Lake City. I had hoped they would join me in a home-cooked traditional turkey feast... I suppose I’m feeling a bit let down. How will I be able to cope if I’m alone?

You may think this is contradictory, coming from someone who values her solitude as much as I do. But there are times — and Thanksgiving Day is one of them — when a person should not be alone. To me it is more sacred than festive, acknowledging all that we have to be grateful for in our lives. Life itself is a treasure, even if you are feeling depressed and lonely. Life is a gift in that we experience a spectrum of emotions and experiences, and we grow from all the lessons we put ourselves through.

I feel it is most important to recall everything we value and appreciate at Thanksgiving time. It is a time for reflection, for gratitude, and for memories and the closeness of family. If you find yourself alone and depressed on Thanksgiving Day, instead of wallowing in self pity, think about all the things you have that you can be grateful for. Remember, there are many people in the world who are a whole lot worse off than you are. If you’ve got a roof over your head, some food to eat and you’re getting by, you are a lot better off than others who are in worse situations.

Angela Morrow, an RN, has some good advice for getting through the holidays if you are bereaved. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to feel the feelings. If you are going to be around other people, don’t think you have to “hold up” emotionally. If something prompts sadness, permit the tears. If anger comes up, by all means vent it.

Getting the right amount of rest and good nutrition are very important. For several months after Ethan’s passing, I was tired and spent. It’s normal. Don’t take on more than you can handle. I realized my limits last year and left early… if you need to go off and be alone, do it. No one expects you to act or feel a certain way.

Your friends or family members might seem uncomfortable when you want to talk about your grief. Especially if they have not experienced the same kind of loss, they may assume you don’t want to think about it or be reminded of it. Often it is important to bring your feelings to the surface and talk about your loved one. You can reassure the others that you would feel better if you could talk about the person you are all missing.

Memories of past holidays that you shared with that person… some anecdotes that include them… funny stories… pictures… all these things will evoke happy memories and camaraderie among you and your friends and family. It is much better than trying to bury the nagging thought that he or she is no longer there with you (at least in body). You can pretty much count on the fact that they are right there in spirit, hanging on every word you say. Sharing your feelings with others helps you process them when you are feeling sad or depressed.

You may watch other families and start comparing them to your own. You might even be envious of the festivities and enjoyment others are having… and wishing you could have it too. But remember, holidays are stressful for most people under normal conditions and they are not always the magical gatherings depicted on Hallmark movies or in greeting cards. It is important to embrace what you have and not compare your situation to other people.

If this is your first holiday without your loved one, be assured that you will survive it. It may be difficult, yes, but if you don’t stifle the grief… if you let it come naturally… you will make it through. Time does heal. The grief may never end, but it will ease off as time goes on. You will become a stronger individual because of what you have experienced.

There is no law that says you must enjoy the holidays. If you don’t feel like going through the motions this year, don’t. Last year I didn’t even want to put up a Christmas tree. In fact, I chose to travel to a different state and spend Christmas with my youngest son, who was alone. Having a different activity and location was a great help to me, and I’m sure my son appreciated the fact that he didn’t have to spend Christmas alone.

Trish Sample, who does a blog called “Loving Farewells,” suggests that if you don’t feel very grateful for anything this year, you might try saying to yourself, “I am thankful that I am becoming a wiser person.” Because you have gone through a loss, you are becoming a different person. You may not realize all the changes yet, but priorities get rearranged and you gain a new awareness of how precious time really is. You are indeed becoming a wiser person, and that is definitely something to be thankful for.

“The healing power of giving thanks and expressing gratitude is strong,” she says in her blog. This realization is powerful and helps you create what it is you desire in your life. Thanksgiving is a perfect time for you to give thanks for your grieving. There is healing power in gratitude, and you will be amazed at how it empowers you.

If nothing else, start by getting a pen and pad of paper. Start writing a list of everything you’re grateful for right now. Trish says to start looking for things directly related to your loved one’s life in general, or his or her life specific to you. Here’s an example: “I’m thankful that Ethan taught me how to build a chicken house,” or “I’m so thankful that I was able to go to Colorado and hold my new grandson before Ethan passed away.”

Next, look for the things you can be grateful for concerning their death. For instance, “I am so thankful that Ron got to spend five days with his dad while I went to Colorado to see my new grandson, and that it gave them special quality time together.” Or you might write: “I am so grateful for the beautiful memorial service we had in Pennsylvania, with Ethan’s favorite music and the flowers that Amy and John brought to the church.”

The next step, according to Trish Sample, is to give thanks for relating to positive changes in your life and your family’s. You might be grateful that you no longer are crying in the middle of the night, or “I am thankful that it worked out that Ethan’s granddaughter could have his ATV,” or “I’m happy that I was able to sell our house in six months and move to Colorado to be close to my grandson.”

Finally, discover the things outside of yourself that you are grateful for. “I am grateful to live in Colorado, where there is so much sunshine and beauty.” Or you might write, “I am thankful I have so many new friends now that I made this move and am starting a new life.”

It’s okay if you only have a few things on your list. But you’ll be surprised at the difference it makes when you start counting your blessings and being thankful for the little things in your life that make it worthwhile.

In conclusion, here are eight ideas for approaching the holiday season from “Help for the Holidays: Ideas for the Bereaved,” by Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D.:

(1) Stay connected to your feelings. There are different ways of doing this. You can express your feelings through writing, sharing or doing something… even meditating or being active. I find playing the piano to be very therapeutic and also relieves stress when I’m uptight.

(2) Think about what will be helpful for yourself and your family in the present. If old traditions don’t work for you, don’t continue doing them. Try a different experience for the holidays this year. Take a trip somewhere, or volunteer to help out at the homeless shelter.

(3) Incorporate memories of the loved one you’ve lost into your holiday traditions. Light a candle, or have someone read a poem or a prayer in their honor. Create a collage of pictures, or sew a memory quilt.

(4) Don’t feel guilty for how you feel. It’s okay if you are happy or enjoy some aspect of the holidays. Don’t try to live up to others’ expectations of how you should behave or feel. Mixed emotions are normal during bereavement.

(5) Find ways of giving to others. Feeling sad and empty inside can be relieved by reaching out and helping others who may be in more need than yourself.

(6) Avoid overindulgences with alcohol and food during the holidays. Eating and drinking to excess can create problems in your life. This is usually a way of masking underlying emotions. Express them instead.

(7) Explore the traditions of your faith concerning mourning and remembering. Lighting a candle or creating a candle-lighting memorial can be part of your celebration.

(8) Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help if you are feeling overwhelmed by negative emotions, or are finding yourself immobilized by your grief, or you are having other adverse experiences or behavior.

Thanksgiving and the holidays present challenges for those of us who are grieving, but we can handle them if we are aware that our emotions are volatile and we can plan to cope with them as they confront us. The most important thing to do is go within and feel that special love. Close your eyes and envision your loved one there in front of you… smiling… happy that you are going on with your life… and grateful for everything life has to offer you.

If you have questions about grief or love, please e-mail me. And check out my new blog, True Love Matters. I will be answering questions people have about these subject matters.

I’ve included a video from a man who lost his brother just four weeks before Thanksgiving last year. His expression of gratitude in face of his loss is the important thing.


  • valerie benson 5 years ago

    Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and yet the news media hardly seems to think it worth a mention. We seem to jump from halloween to xmas and thanksgiving is over looked. It would seem that a day of family and gratitude would deserve more fanfare ? i really appreciate this thoughtful commentary on the significance of this day. The best supper my favorite is turkey with all the dressings and to be surrounded with friends and family. My father passed nov.12 1996 and on thanksgiving day he made his ghostly presence known he had said that he would keep an eye on my brother in law and he kept his word after his passing by sneaking up on my brother in law Jack just before turkey carving and he Jack heard him as loud as could be " How are you jack?" So the ghost of my beloved father showed up on thanksgiving and he proved it by making my brother in law jump!