November 26, 2013

Grief & Gratitude on Thanksgiving Day. ~ Barry John Johnson

My father died on Thanksgiving Day when I was eleven years old.

He had a heart attack. He was my sole parent as my mother had left six years prior. He was not perfect, but he was a very loving father. I felt loved and protected in his presence.

Grief arose like a dragon, only to be quickly suppressed in what would be a lingering, long term dormancy. The practical life of a sixth grader had to resume.

After a week off, which included a wake and funeral, I returned to school. First period, a note was promptly dispatched to my teacher. She announced out loud that I was to report to the counselor’s office. The stares and whispers of my classmates guided me out.

I had already been hit up first thing in the morning with a slurry of curious questions: did my dad really die? How had he died? Had I seen the body? I kept my gaze down and gave one word answers, if any. I didn’t tear up or well up at all.

I was asked to sit down with two counselors facing me. With what, in retrospect, seemed like genuine empathy, they expressed condolences and politely asked if I would like talk about my father. I said, “No, thank you.” My father had been military and taught me to be polite. They said I had been through a lot and it might be good to talk about it. “No, thank you,” I repeated. They looked at each other as if to silently conference on what to do next. They had apparently resigned not to force anything upon me and let me know that if I wanted to talk, I could come see them. I said “Thank you,” left and headed back to class.

Life did go on and Thanksgiving Day turned out to be something of an annual quandary for me, probably on both conscious and unconscious levels. This was a day to express gratitude and be thankful for all of our blessings. This was day that now also symbolized death, loss and grief for me.

How could I be grateful? Thanks for taking my Dad? Thanks for turning my life on end?

I was left with this tricky puzzle—this conflict that may be normal for many—where I avoided and suppressed.

I did go talk to a counselor…twenty five years after the fact. I was then ready to discuss my father’s death. I would even become a counselor eventually.

Thanksgiving continues to intrigue me to this day, but it is not a puzzle. It is not a quandary. It is a day of great gratitude. It is a day to honor my father and the time I had with him. It is a day to celebrate all of our blessings as they are, in fact, impermanent. It is a day to celebrate life as it is precious.

To get to this new place of true gratitude. I first had to get past suppression and move towards acceptance. I think I had to spend a lot of time just with acceptance, until it sunk in and settled. I then saw that I had what seemed to be two conflicting forces that Thanksgiving represented.

It was grief versus gratitude, butting heads, battling it out until one day I simply realized I could have both.

I could grieve on Thanksgiving, and I could be grateful on Thanksgiving. I could have this one day that represents both. I could blend, amalgamate and synthesize. I could turn the two into one.

What seem like opposing forces don’t have to be. Once I let both “sides” just be, I would sometimes grieve on or near Thanksgiving, and sometimes not. I could always be grateful for something. Gradually, it became a totally joyous day whereby I celebrate life and its impermanence. I see gratitude as divine and grief as human. I see that we can be both of these.


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Editor: Jane Henderling

 {photo via via bigdai100 on Flickr}

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