Last year at Thanksgiving, I was more grateful than I could remember being in a long time. Despite a very difficult two years, things seemed to finally be looking up.
As those of you who follow my columns know, things kind of went to hell right after. The miscarriage, the loss of a treasured job, and wrapped up with the sudden death of my father-in-law. In less than a month, that hard-fought-for thankfulness and joy were gone, replaced once again by a darkness threatening to devour me whole.
Coming from a Christian background, I’m no stranger to the concept of forcing yourself to look at the positives of a situation. In fact, the idea of pushing yourself to be thankful amidst bad situations is quite rampant. There were a lot of people who pushed me to look at the “bright side” of all that happened.
“Your child is in heaven.” “God just couldn’t wait to bring your baby home.” “Your father-in-law has some company.” “You should celebrate knowing you can get pregnant.”
None of those things, on their own, are bad to consider. But, rather than letting them come at a time when you can process, the need to push thankfulness is instead used to “overcome” pain. Or at least, so it’s said.
Any counsellor or psychiatrist will tell you finding the good things to be thankful for is important in life, especially when climbing out of a hole. However, so is being able to sit in your pain. This is something we as a society are not very good at. We know too much of anything is bad. For example, sitting in your pain for far too long can lend to self-pity, which is incredibly destructive.
But what is too long? It can vary from person to person. I’ve known people who processed their grief quickly. Others have taken longer, even years to process the pain. The tipping point is when the grief begins to be destructive, and you do not start to come out of it.
Refusing to allow people time in their pain isn’t always done in an attempt to silence their pain. Often, it comes from a genuine place of wanting to see your loved ones stop hurting. It can be hard to recognize in ourselves that the things we are doing to help them refocus are the things hurting them more.
Sitting in our pain is necessary because it allows time to process, time to work through the stages of grief.
So what exactly does this have to do with Thanksgiving? The tradition most of us were raised with was to set aside the negatives in our lives to spend the day looking at the positives. Though, in theory, this isn’t a bad idea, it can be very minimizing towards those in pain.
Some have little to nothing to be thankful for. While one could argue there is always something to be thankful for, the truth is, some people are in such horrible situations that it’s not possible to spend one day focusing on those things. They’re in that place of being so fresh and deep in their pain that they need to be able to experience it. To be able to say “yes, those things are good, but right now the bad is worse and I need to be allowed to feel that.”
Others may not be in dire circumstances but are attempting to deal with very real, very raw and current pain. Most people in this place can see the things to be thankful for — and they are thankful for them. But being forced to put that thankfulness above their pain can feel silencing. It’s not that they want everyone fawning all over them, but they simply want to be able to be in their pain without feeling guilty for it.
Of course, I am not suggesting in any way the practice of Thanksgiving should be halted, or it is inherently bad. It’s not. Thanksgiving can be very positive. For many of us, it can be a time we look forward to gathering with family and just being.
Rather, what I’m hoping to encourage is participating in the practice of allowing people who are struggling to sit in their pain. To be able to let them say, “things are really terrible for me right now. I’m grateful for xyz, but to be honest, things aren’t good.” and allow them that. Allow them to feel safe enough with their family and friends to be able to be in their pain and express it. To simply be there with them and acknowledge their pain is okay.
For me, this Thanksgiving is already gearing up to be a mix of both. I have a lot to be thankful for this year. A new position at work where I feel like I’m thriving, and our healthy rainbow baby growing inside of me. But, it’s also a moment of deep pain for me. A reminder of all we lost last year, and of all we are still healing from. It is bittersweet.
After this past week, especially, many women and men are dealing with raw, fresh wounds torn open by current events. Ones that will hurt for a while as their trauma has been pushed to the forefront of conversation.
This Thanksgiving, be thankful but also be a support. To simply acknowledge the pain others are in. If you are someone who is in pain, know that it is okay to not set that pain aside. Thanksgiving can be so much more than a time to quiet the hurts in order to bellow the thanks. It can also be a time when pain and gratitude come together, are supported and felt together, and can become part of the healing process.