This will not be Thanksgiving as we have known it: a day to gather and feast with friends and family; to watch football and play games; to tell stories of years gone by and to toast loved ones no longer with us; to laugh (or roll our eyes) as relatives enact the same family script allotted to them decades ago; and, to gratefully experience the beautiful messiness of life together.
Over the past week, I have heard story after story about the struggle to accept this reality, and what it requires of us.
Today — two days after the governor in my state, Minnesota’s Tim Walz, presented his latest executive order — is no different. Even those who trust the epidemiologists and have adhered to state mandates throughout the pandemic are wondering: Can’t we safely gather with a few friends and family? Do the guidelines apply if we’ve already been staying home? I’m not sick, so a little sneak visit to my grandkids won’t hurt, will it?
And yet, the closer we get to Thanksgiving, the more dire becomes the news. The pandemic is raging out of control. At the time of my writing, 11.4 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 250,000 people have died from it in the United States alone. Exponential rises in hospitalizations and deaths are projected to continue. Health care systems are stretched thin. Cities and states, including Minnesota, have instituted new measures to keep us safe: eliminating social gatherings and urging us to avoid holiday travel.
Covid fatigue is real. Our surge capacity is depleted. We have endured nine months of ambiguous losses without nearly enough (if any) lament. After hearing about the latest restrictions, my six-year-old daughter melted down in tears. She understood immediately and viscerally that she wouldn’t get to see people whom she loves and misses dearly over Thanksgiving. She recounted each loss in order of their anticipated occurrence.
I felt crestfallen, because my natural impulse is to shield my daughter from pain and somehow “make it alright.”
Our ambivalence about these limitations on our holiday is real and not easy to endure. I suspect this has to do with the interlacing of grief and gathering. If so, then one way through our collective sadness may be the heart of Thanksgiving itself: the interlacing of grace and gratitude.
Throughout my life, Thanksgiving (and, for that matter, Christmas) traditions have changed significantly. The large gatherings of thirty or more family members in my childhood home have given way to smaller and newer configurations in different locales. While the cast of characters has shifted, the eating, the playing, and most essentially, the gathering and honestly the grieving have remained constant.
Holidays tap into grief for many, if not most, of us.
Whatever the cause — death, divorce, geographical moves — people previously present are now absent. Sadness accompanies us.
Gathering together, paradoxically, not only elicits grief but also helps us to process it. Some families leave chairs open to remember those who have departed. Many tell the same old stories again and again: “Remember when Uncle Frank burned the turkey and we ordered out pizza for dinner. I can still hear Grandma Doris screeching after we threw the football across the room and broke her vase.” Laughter and tears comingle as we remember our shared history and mark our place in time. Thanksgiving, like other holidays, is a communal ritual that re-weaves our lives together in an era when, as one author put it, relationships are “tethered to loss.”
Celebrating and mourning are fundamental movements of life. Given that holiday gatherings help us to celebrate and mourn communally, it’s not surprising that so many of us have considered ignoring the very guidelines intended to spare us and others from even more grief.
Willingness to grieve at home, right where we are, might free us to live in congruence with our deepest values — love of neighbor, self, and God — this Thanksgiving.
How might we do this?
...Finding time to be silent, to breathe, and to listen to ourselves. Even small segments of time, five minutes twice each day, can enhance our self-awareness and contribute to inner peace and clarity of mind.
...Noticing, without self-recrimination, judgment, or blame, our compulsion to “fix it” or “bend the rules” in order to soothe ourselves and others. Such mindfulness might put us in touch with our heartbreak, worry, frustration, or fear — beautiful aspects of our humanity.
...Paying attention to our attempts to alter our feelings. Instead of resisting our inner life, we can ride our emotions like ocean waves, trusting that feelings come and feelings go.
...Mourning: receiving our sorrow when and how it arrives on the scene. There’s no prescription or right way to grieve.
...Requesting support, care, and guidance from a friend, family member, therapist, mentor, or pastor when our grief is complicated or depression looms.
...Watching and waiting for gratitude to bubble up within us. We can listen for it in the lives of others. We can choose it daily.
Studies show that gratitude, as a regular practice, lowers stress, bolsters resilience, cultivates happiness, strengthens relational bonds, and thereby contributes to our wellbeing. It is what this holiday is all about: giving thanks, perhaps especially when our tears flow and chests heave in grief. Over the past few months, my daughter, my niece and I have asked each other at dinner, What are you grateful for today? This little repetition has placed our attention on ordinary gifts that we would have ignored pre-Covid. It has increased our hope and joy. It has buoyed us up as we mourn.
Theologically speaking, gratitude is the human response to God’s grace.
As twin moments in the divine-human encounter, grace and gratitude are inseparable. Merely a taste of God’s bountiful love inspires thankfulness. Grace and gratitude surprise us and move us to receive one another with delight. They enable us to say “yes” to limits on our holiday gatherings. They enable us to grieve mindfully, that is, to say “yes” to the crowd of sorrows beckoning us to let them in, as the poet Rumi put it. We may not be gathering as we have in the past, but we are the people who dwell together with Christ in the bosom of God where the sorrows of all humanity are held, honored, and healed. We are not ultimately alone and neither are our loved ones. Upheld by the mystery of grace, then, gratitude and grief bind us together even as we are apart.
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the executive director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She teaches and writes regularly for Retreat Where You Are. She is the author of numerous articles and two books, The Church and the Crisis of Community and Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action.
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