Today is Thanksgiving, and for some people—it is maybe even safe to say for a lot of people— this can be a rough day, the prelude to a difficult season of mixed feelings. This year, there has been much loss in households across the nation, but in particular for many of my family and friends. Those stories always hit close to home, because it isn’t far-removed from my own reality, which means it could be me next. It could be any of us.
As a household who has experienced loss, I know all too well what it is like to have the empty seat at the table and to have to push through expectations of holiday cheer when it doesn’t feel possible, especially in the raw days of early grief. I’ve wanted to cancel the holidays. I’ve wanted to cry through the holidays (I have cried through the holidays). I’ve wanted to throw away every tradition and crawl under a rock and die.
Americans today are grieving a string of tragic shootings that have happened across the nation in recent weeks, days, and sadly years. Every time it happens, it reminds us of the wounds that never fully healed before being ripped open and reopened again and again and again. These situations have been happening too frequently. As a teacher, this year I got trained in how to use a tourniquet, which is now in every classroom. We practice active shooter drills and learn strategy about where to hide in the classroom, as well as which walls will slow bullets down more than others. It is a different world than the one I started teaching in 19 years ago. But it isn’t just schools. It could happen at church, shopping, dancing in a club, anywhere. I’ve had conversations with my own children about what to do if they find themselves in that dangerous situation. “Can I carry ketchup around to make it look like blood?” Peter, my youngest, asked me. No, we won’t be doing that, I told him. Although I’ve become increasingly pessimistic about the outlook of this world, I still fall on the side of “choose to believe life is mostly good.” I don’t want the kids living in a way that has them thinking doomsday is imminent. But at the same time, I want their eyes open.
Jeremy Goldberg said, “Courage is knowing it might hurt, and doing it anyway. Stupidity is the same. And that’s why life is hard.”
It’s hard to know the optimal ratio of what to pay attention to and prepare for, and what to let go because it will eat you alive. Everything we do in life feels like a delicate balancing act of needing to know the right proportions.
Recently I was trying to watch a Netflix show called “From Scratch.” I didn’t really like it, but I got far enough into it to watch a scene that had something very insightful. One of the characters was explaining to a new American art student about how Florentine artists during the Renaissance would throw themselves off the Ponte Vecchio, going crazy because they didn’t think they could make anything as beautiful as the great masters. The character warns the student, “Find your own voice while you’re here. I’m interested in originality.”
And this is something we are constantly telling students—constantly telling ourselves. Still, we measure ourselves by the perceptions we create about the people and things and places around us, and how we think they are doing life better than us, creating narratives that we are falling short or not doing enough or not gifted enough or not full of the right ideas or not having the right luck.
I think this happens with grief too. I know when my husband passed away, I was resentful that others could celebrate Thanksgiving with an intact family and my family was broken. I’ll never forget the first Halloween I spent as an only parent, struggling to participate in a trunk-or-treat for my 6-year-old with a 1-year-old strapped to my back and a 3-year-old running off as I attempted to decorate the minivan. Then I had the predicament of how to take my children to all of the cars while passing out candy at my own. You can’t do everything as a solo parent. It was one of my worst moments on this journey, realizing that I couldn’t be the kind of parent I wanted for my children—the kind of mom I planned to be. I planned each one of my children down to the day, but I forgot to plan for this. I was the only single parent at the trunk-or-treat and I felt invisible to everyone.
That’s the thing about grief. To other people, they may empathize when a loss happens, but life goes back to normal for them and they don’t feel the daily impact of the absence. Life does not go back to normal when you lose a loved one. That was one of the difficult parts about grief: feeling alone in my sadness and pain. And here’s the other thing: the empty seat at Thanksgiving wasn’t just a loss of a person. It was the loss of the life I planned and expected, the vision I had for myself of my intact family and growing old with someone, and the loss of being able to follow the steps in my personal playbook because I stupidly thought I had control. That is a pain that only affects the self. I haven’t known too many people grieving the failed life plans of another person. Usually we just accept them for who they are.
And that’s where I go back to the Ponte Vecchio scene of artists calling it quits because they couldn’t imagine creating a masterpiece as good as Michelangelo’s. Did you know Michelangelo had poor social problems, was depressed, had a multitude of health conditions, and a bad temperament? I picture him a genius, but incredibly lonely.
I saw a meme going around reminding people not to believe every picture they see on social media about other people’s holidays. It’s not all fun and cheer. They’ve got their own problems too, they’re just not posting it. For me, almost seven years into my journey, I know that they’ll experience their own grief too. Grief wasn’t a personal attack on me. It’s a reality of being alive. Nobody will escape it.
So. What to do in the meantime? What to do when grief is raw? When sadness is overwhelming?
I worked on some coping strategies over the years to override debilitating sadness and despair. One is the “consolation prize” mentality. What do you get to do in lieu of something else? For me, one of those things was having cats. My late husband was allergic and there is no way we would have ever been cat owners. Today, my household includes three of them. Of course I would have never chosen cats over him, but in a universe that doesn’t give us full control, you take what you can get. (I just ordered my cats a Christmas ornament!)
When I find myself getting jealous, particularly when I see other intact families, I ask myself, “Would you trade lives with them?” I have yet to say yes to my question. Time and energy is better spent working on your own masterpiece instead of watching others make theirs. Michelangelo was cool, but there is an infinite amount of art out there to admire, including your own.
Another brain hack was finding the silver lining in every situation. Even in the worst moments, there is something—perhaps even just a tiny nugget of something—that can bring you joy. As Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I’m working hard every single day to find joy.
Your life is a masterpiece, even the broken parts. I wonder if Michelangelo was immensely talented because he struggled? There is a beauty in being able to see pain from a different perspective, and to channel it into something else. Your suffering becomes a gift, giving you the ability to see, love, and feel differently.
Recently I listened to a dharma talk about the ripple effect. The things we do that have an impact on others. The things that had an impact on us. The little things. The things you might not even notice right away, but later realize what a profound effect they had on your life. Small, pivotal moments.
I’ve been trying to battle my “head in the sand” approach about money and investing and found a YouTuber named Rose who breaks it down for the dummies like me. She talked about “8 Money Habits That Keep You Poor” and said, “Your habits have a ripple effect that compounds over time.” The ripple. It matters even with money.
Grateful Dead sang about it:
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
You gotta make the ripples happen.
Which brings me to the idea of gratitude, and giving thanks, on this day we call Thanksgiving. I don’t celebrate the story of the pilgrims. I don’t celebrate what they did to indigenous people. Heck, I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t even celebrate the menu. However, the idea of gratitude, and being thankful in the moment for what we have, is something worth celebrating. It is difficult to do, especially when you feel like what you don’t have is slowly killing you. It is perhaps one of the hardest things you can ever do in the throes of your grief— feeling grateful. How do you feel grateful that somebody died? Or you lost all of your money? Or you have a disease?
Yet in the end, when you’ve felt in your bones the searing kind of pain that is grief, and if you’ve lived long enough to feel it scab up inside of you and harden into scars at the seams of where you pieced yourself back together, you hopefully get to the point of concluding that there is only one thing you can do in a reality where loss is inevitable: find joy in the moment. Hold your loved ones tight. Find what makes you happy. Live fully. Help others. Love.
The ripples caused by your loved ones still continue inside of you, and the best way to continue their legacy is to get out there making more ripples. When we see that their masterpiece is your masterpiece, and your masterpiece is their masterpiece, then I think we get closer to understanding the purpose of why we are here.