How do we give thanks in the midst of suffering?

My family can rock a holiday, which is why Thanksgiving is one of my favorite. Lots of family, feasting, and FUN mixed with ‘just the right amount’ of gratitude shared before dinner—the perfect holiday—at least it was until now.

Now—to give thanks feels like I must ignore the fact that my mom AND her fabulous monkey bread won’t be present. (She passed away in 2014.) To give thanks feels like a form of denial when standing beside my sister, whose family of 9 just lost everything in a house fire. And this is just my life. I have friends whose life circumstances could trump my sorrows; yours could possibly do the same.

So how do we actually Give Thanks and celebrate the 26th rather than curse the dawn and rue the day? Wade into deeper water. Until now, I didn’t even realize that my gratitude was fed by a shallow source. I miss my mom: her expressions, her presence, her help, her holiday OCD (her insistence that a menu, shopping list and date/time for us to shop had to be known ~30 days in advance). I miss her monkey bread (it melted in your mouth). I could go on, but just that is enough since it feels very real and pretty deep—at least to me. However if this is truly the depth of my heart and mind then ALL Thanksgivings for me are forever concluded. I grieve for my sister and her family. For now they have taken refuge with Joe (my husband) and me. At some point in almost every day, one of them allows me to enter their grief and I am confronted with the thought, “What would it be like if our roles were reversed? If ALL I know and call mine were GONE?” If giving thanks is based on accepting or denying circumstances (for myself and those I love), then this glorious holiday is definitely a thing of my past.

But as I wade into deeper water, Thanksgiving becomes not a holiday, but a heightened awareness. I am aware and thankful (defined as pleased and relieved) to see that much of my mom lives in me. (What a glorious thought!) While I can’t be who Jaqueline (Jackie) Johnson was to the world (and in particular to my family), I can be a channel of her love. I can share her stories and invite us all to share in the memories and mystery of our ‘LIFE with Jackie’. As momentary awareness takes over, I find that even through my tears I am flooded with JOY when I choose to be aware of all that was mine while she lived and all that is still mine because her heart, lessons, and life are within me.

As I live with my sister and her family, momentary awareness is also vital, but deeper admissions and acceptance are equally necessary. Admissions (as individual as the moment
in which they are experienced) like: I can’t possibly know what it would feel like to lose everything since it has never happened to me. But just that admission, said only to myself, gives me an awareness of how truly helpless and inadequate I am in this circumstance (possibly every circumstance). And it allows me to relinquish the illusion of control, open my heart and become aware of the beauty and honor that are mine to receive the treasures of sorrow, confusion, and frustration that flow from their hearts. To accept that while I have nothing to give that relieves their distress, I am privileged to share their pain and possibly enter into a bond that only shared suffering will provide us. To accept that while darkness has forced us to live together, ‘because you know that we had nowhere else to go’ (my sister’s words), light and life are still present in each of us. And as we are vulnerably aware in these moments, and admit where they are taking us, and accept what they are showing us, we are brought even closer together and there is LIGHT and it suddenly feels like enough. Being flooded with this light fills my heart with JOY and expels the darkness. How it works? I don’t know. But I have seen what a little light can do in a dark room and I am so grateful!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Iris Proctor
Iris is the director of ArborWoman.