Giving Thanks for Imperfect Families


Thanksgiving is only a week away and its the season for thinking of family, friends and all the many things we give thanks for. Our bloggers reminds us that one of the things we should remember and give thanks for are those we have loved and lost and all of our memories whether they are perfect or not. Those people and memories are important and make us who we are today.

There are many occasions when we miss someone … like when someone says something that we know would make her laugh with contagious abandonment and no one could possibly let the sound of her joyful eruption subside before feeling embraced by it. As I hike up the mountain where she taught me the names of wildflowers, I want to say to her, “Oh, look…a yellow lady slipper!” I want to share the moment when nature holds us in a bond thicker than blood.  I can still hear her breathing heavily on the steep path, determined to reach the outcropping of rocks where we could rest and view the mountains rising through a comforter of clouds from the valley below.


That’s what I don’t miss: The labored breathing, the laughter that suddenly snagged and launched a coughing fit, the smell of tobacco and beer, the face clenched with pain from wounds too deep for memory… the sure slide to death on decades of self-abuse.


When she died in April 1983, I was in my first year as a minister. Thirty years of helping people through loss have only confirmed what I learned that year: Grief isn’t just about losing someone you love; it is also about letting go of hopes for a better past. I learned that forgiveness is not cheap, and it may take years to free up a heart clogged with guilt or anger. I learned that most families are imperfect, and that love abides, even when corroded by jealousy, misunderstanding, or resentment.


As I sat with hundreds of grieving families over three decades, themes often emerged:  a divorce still bitter, a gay son rejected, siblings strained by the roles they took during Mom’s long illness, a daughter cut out of the will. Then there were the issues that came up at the time of death: a wife deciding on cremation for her husband without consulting her Catholic stepchildren, a hierarchy of seating at the funeral service or caravanning to the cemetery, a father blaming himself for the accidental death of his child. The list goes on.


So when I wrote a book to help people create rituals of remembrance through the seasons of grief, I included a chapter called “Family Ties and Family Lies: When Your Family is Alienated.” Another chapter addresses issues that surface because of the circumstances of death.  A suicide or a murder, for example, calls for a different approach than death from a long illness. The death of a child is not the same as the death of an old person.


This year as I read through the book in preparation for publication of the second edition, I was reminded of one reason I wrote Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death. Family issues or circumstances of a death need to be acknowledged or addressed without taking center stage in a public setting. People who gather for a funeral or memorial service need to honor and celebrate the person who died while they also have opportunities to feel anger or guilt, invite forgiveness, let go of the past, and prepare to move ahead.


The final chapter of the book deals with expressing grief through a year of anniversaries and holidays. As we anticipate Thanksgiving, I think of this as a time to pause and remember those who are not gathered with us. It is a time to give thanks, not just for the abundance in our lives, but the gifts we receive from one another. This year my husband, Chuck, and I will host friends for dinner on Thursday. I will set the table with my mother’s Spode china and Chuck’s mom’s silver, and will buy spiced peaches because we always had them when I was growing up. Our friends will bring Aunt Fanny’s pumpkin chiffon pie and the traditional creamed onions that absolutely must be part of their meal. I will recall the year when our niece Amy became a vegetarian and could not bear to be in the same room with a dead bird, and the year the cat dragged the turkey off the counter. I will probably burn the rolls. As we savor our meal, we will all give thanks for imperfect holidays with our imperfect families…and yes, we will remember them well.

When Grief During the Holidays is New

Now that Halloween is past, everyone is looking toward Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. The holiday season can be difficult for those who are grieving. Trying to cope with grief while so many people around you are celebrating is daunting. Today’s blog post is reprinted by permission of the author, Pat Schwiebert, who runs Grief Watch. Pat has some advice to help you cope with the holidays when your grief is fresh and overwhelming. It’s good advice for everyone whether they are mourning a new loss or one that is decades old. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator 

As we officially enter the holiday season those who grieve enter into a quagmire of emotions.

Is it okay to experience joy when your loved one is dead?

Can you be grateful for the time you had with your loved one while being overwhelmed with missing that person?

Will you give yourself permission to join in the festivities of the season or not gather with family and friends depending on how you feel in the moment?

For those in their first season, you may be surprised at how challenging this time of year may be.  Friends and family may or may not be aware of what this may be like for you.  Because holidays are more intense, and hold more expectations than other times in the year, they are a set up for those who grieve.  Holidays tend to be family time.  You would think it should mean that family will be around supporting each other and remembering holidays past and those no longer present.  Some will do it well.  Others will deny there’s someone missing, while the atmosphere will be like there is an elephant in the room, but everybody’s pretending that nothing special is going on.

People will mean well.  But their tendency may be to want to fix you.  They want the old you back.  They want you to be happy in order to reduce their discomfort.  But there is no fixing a broken heart.  Your heart will never again be without blemish.  The scar from your sorrow will remain, and the healing that you will go through will make you a different person.  That’s not a bad thing.  But it’s helpful to know that part of you will be changing.

To simplify the holidays it may be helpful to assess just what is important to you .   Here are a few questions to ask yourself about the holidays:

  1. What kind of celebration do I want to have this year?
  2. Do I really have to put up all those decorations?
  3. Can meals be more simply prepared and be just as filling with a few less calories?
  4. Who is it important for me to see and visit with during the holidays?
  5. Who makes the rules about who I must give presents to and how much I must spend?
  6. Must I attend every event that I am invited to during the holiday season?
  7. Can I give myself permission to create some new traditions?
  8. Can I believe that people are coming to visit me and that they are not there to check on my housecleaning abilities or lack thereof?
  9. Can I be kind to myself and plan some quiet times during the holidays to provide myself with enough rest?
  10. What does this time of year mean to me personally and how do I wish to celebrate it.  For example will I attend or not attend church services etc.?
  11. What traditions do I want to hold onto and which are important to others in my family?
  12. Am I willing to let others know what will help me feel safe at gatherings and to ask what their needs may be?
  13. What rituals could I create around the holidays to help me remember my loved one?

There is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays.  Set out with the intention to do the best you can, given the circumstances.  Whether you stick to old family traditions or change the pattern, it’s all OK.   You will not be able to please everyone.    Next year you may have more energy and more interest in participating in holiday routines than you do now. This year you may have to figure out how to get through the season and not set yourself up for what you’re not ready for.  Try to recognize that the holiday is just another day of the year filled with all sorts of activities, not just dreaded memories.

The staff at Grief Watch hope for a soft holiday season for you…  one that allows you to just be in the moment, appreciating memories of holidays past, and being grateful for those who can hope for you when you yourself can’t experience hope.

Pat Schwiebert, R.N. – With more than thirty years of experience working with grieving individuals and groups, Pat is proud to be the founder and executive director of Grief Watch.  Pat is the author of many books, including Tear Soup, a recipe for healing after loss, We Were Gonna Have a Baby…But Had An Angel Instead, When Hello Means Goodbye, and has created a number of other resources to help those who are grieving.

Reprinted by permission of Pat Schwiebert of Grief Watch.

The Grief Watch site was created to provide people with bereavement resources, memorial products and links that can help them through their personal loss. It also serves as an excellent educational tool for all who travel down the road of grief.

Photos courtesy Stock.xchng.