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  • Writer's picturePinky Alger

Grateful and Grieving on Thanksgiving

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

A family member posted this to my wall yesterday. I think every word of this is true on how we feel during the Holidays when we no longer have our child with us.

There are some who believe that positive thinking and gratitude are the answer to most of life’s ailments. And perhaps it is the answer for most of them. But is it possible to be both grateful and grieving?

Sure a posture of gratitude can help many situations, but gratitude doesn’t always feel possible when grieving the loss of a child. Maybe it’s the quick fix, game changer for some things in life that aren’t as permanent, but all the positive thoughts in the world aren’t going to change the fact that my child is dead. It will not change the empty chair at my table on Thanksgiving, the 3T clothes my son never grew into, or the hole exactly the size and shape of him that is permanently frayed into the fabric of every moment of my life now.

Gratitude is great– really, it is– but it can’t fix child loss. Nothing can. The only fix for my pain would be to raise my child from the dead.

Bring to the table a cornucopia filled with my blessings and I’ll bring you one filled with my infinite pain. Let’s put them both on the empty chair next to me where my seven year old should be sitting, joyously stuffing his face with pumpkin pie.

Telling me to only focus on my blessings and not what’s missing this holiday season is like telling me to forget if I had lost all my limbs. Yes, I’d still be thankful for what I had left and yes I’d also be deeply sad for what is missing.

Both are true. It’s not one or the other. Yes I’m still grieving because I love and miss my son with every molecule in my body, but that doesn’t mean I’m not also deeply thankful for my blessings.

As bereaved parents we are forced to learn the art of holding infinite space for both/and– because this new life we didn’t ask for is now a heartbreaking juxtaposition of contradictions. Our hearts hold both the blessings and the trials, the joy and the pain, the white meat and the dark meat on the same blessed fork.

We are grateful and we are grieving.

The former can’t cure the latter, and the latter doesn’t negate the former. Nor were they meant to. Yes, grieving parents are incredibly thankful for every single blessing in their life, and that also doesn’t negate the truth of the sorrow in their heart. If only the world could learn to hold the space for both too so bereaved parents could catch a break at the table of thanks every once in awhile.

This Thanksgiving, be so very grateful if your table is as full as it should be, for that is truly the greatest blessing there is. And in your thanksgiving please remember those of us who come to the table with a grieving heart. Remember to hold space for us bereaved parents too. Leave room for the truth of how hard the holidays are for those who are missing our very hearts– and be thankful if you’re lucky enough to have every single one of your children sitting at the table with you.

Not everyone is quite so lucky.

When you see me this holiday season, pull up a chair beside me, and open wide your heart and ears to the truth of my experience. At first glance it might appear that I seem ungrateful, but I beg you, look again. The depth of my gratitude runs deeper than you know, for I know more than most how quickly my greatest blessings can be taken in an instant; I know the immeasurable pain of being robbed of my greatest joy. I don’t take a thing for granted, so please don’t patronizingly remind me to be thankful for my blessings when I share with you the truth of my sadness. I’m not sad because I’m choosing a negative frame of mind, I’m sad because I’m grieving the death of my precious child. Those are two very different things.

Trust me, I am thankful, grateful and blessed. And I am also still grieving, hurting and sometimes a mess.

Please don’t assume because I’m sad that I’m not grateful, or because I seem grateful I’m not still sad that my child isn’t here. And keep in mind once Thursday rolls around I may decide to close my eyes tight and not move from my bed until Thanksgiving passes. I may not feel very grateful for much of anything at all. And that is perfectly ok too. It’s more than ok– it’s the reality and truth of surviving the holidays after child loss. Grief is not a straight line, and the grief landmines of the holidays only amplify a grieving parents’ suffering.

Instead of assuming you know how I feel, simply ask me how I’m really doing this holiday season. Ask me what the holidays are like for me as a bereaved parent.

Ask me about the empty chair beside me and I’ll gratefully tell you all about the beautiful boy who should be sitting next to me, the one who taught me how to stretch my love far and wide enough to span the gap between heaven and earth. Ask me about the one who taught me how to gracefully keep my balance while juggling impossible juxtapositions of life and death, joy and sorrow, mothering the living and the dead. Ask me about the one who showed me how to love beyond all time and space, how to survive the unimaginable, how to live for both of us.

Ask me about my greatest blessing and my deepest sorrow– ask me about my child.

Remember him with me. Invite him to the table this year too. I need to know that you remember he lived. Share his stories, his memory, his life, his love. And if you’re open to blessing my aching heart even more, I invite you to say his name out loud with me. Often. And without hesitation. To hear his name is to hear the most beautiful sound there is. May it always be on the tip of your tongue like it is on mine. There is no greater gift.

Remember that for some of us the holidays can be very painful and lonely– not the season of Yuletide cheer they once were. Take a minute out of the hustle and bustle of ever-gratefulness to simply be real with me. Climb into my skin for awhile. Feel uncomfortable with me as we wade in the waters of holiday grief. Embrace my grieving heart with tenderness, with compassion, with love. My heart will forever be broken. Remember to treat me gently. It takes everything within me just to show up at the table.

Let me know you’re thankful I did.

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