It’s been a minute since my last blog, and typically when I procrastinate with writing it’s because I’m avoiding something. I think I’ve known that due to the recent events in my life, this blog would need to be more vulnerable, and it’s risky for therapists to show too much vulnerability. Now that Thanksgiving week is here, push comes to shove. I can’t cultivate gratitude without honoring grief.

On September 30 I lost my dad. When I have shared the news with people, I’ve noticed that I’ve been quick to explain that it was a miracle that he made it to age 73 because he was born with a rare heart defect, and at age 2 he underwent a surgery in which he only had a 10% chance of survival. He was a true optimist and had every reason to be. Over the past 20 years he pushed through some health challenges related to his heart and four years ago he developed bladder cancer which became more aggressive at the end of his life and caused significant pain. It was agonizing to see him suffering the seven full weeks that he was in the hospital before he passed. So, I am forced to embrace the dialectic here which is that I can be grateful that I had my dad’s influence in my life for as long as I did, AND I’m sad that I’ve lost one of my biggest cheerleaders who didn’t get many years with my boys. With grief and gratitude, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. We can’t be fully grateful for what we have until we have known what we’ve lost.

October was a heavy month for our family. Less than 24 hours after we laid my dad to rest, we learned that my niece who was 39 weeks pregnant went to her routine checkup and there was no heartbeat. This news was unbearably devastating on its own, and the timing made it even harder to accept. Dad’s passing was more in the natural order of things, but for this precious baby’s life to be gone before he could take his first breath could not be fathomed. Sometimes in grief we want to make sense of things in a way that makes us feel like we solved a problem. Unfortunately, grief is not a problem to be solved. It’s an experience of love having nowhere to go. Essentially, this is the experience of a broken heart, and an interesting thing happens when we give ourselves space to grieve. The cracks of our broken heart create a path for love to enter in, and then we have a greater capacity to love. We can better empathize with those going through loss, which is a great comfort to those who are grieving.

Writing is a way for us to see ourselves and name the truth. I chose to share my experience here because now I am gaining a better understanding of grief that goes beyond the therapeutic principles and bullet points that I’ve incorporated into therapy. I also know that I’m not the only one grieving this holiday season. There are empty seats at many Thanksgiving tables. Perhaps you have experienced a loss in your life that you’ve struggled to make sense of. If that’s the case know that I see you. The best advice I can give is to let your mind rest, surrender attempting to find an answer, and care for your heart by giving yourself space to feel. Allow yourself to be cared for by those who have walked a similar road. If you’re in the position of supporting a grieving person, don’t wait for them to tell you what they need. Just try to observe the need and help where you can. If you can provide a listening ear and a hug to someone who is lonely, then do that. If you can make a meal or clean their house for them, then do that.

In closing, I’m tempted to say the usual phrase of Happy Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t seem fitting because happiness is based on temporary circumstances that bring about personal pleasure. Joy, on the other hand, is more meaningful, spiritual and selfless. It’s a choice that can be transformative, having the power to sustain you through trials and hardships. For more on the difference between happiness and joy check out this article. So as you hold both grief and gratitude may you experience the gift of joy as you gather with and remember those you love on Thanksgiving.

“Count it all joy, my brothers (and sisters) when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4 (ESV)

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