Finding Gratitude in Grief

Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday.  Maybe it is because it is so simple, no gifts to buy, no ugly sweaters; just food, family, friends, football and fun.  Like most of you, Thanksgiving and other holidays become something very different after the death of our child, grandchild or sibling.  That first Thanksgiving after my daughter Ashley’s death was excruciating as I tried to maintain our traditional extended family gathering.

I remember that an empty chair and place setting were there to honor Ashley; the gesture was kind but the sight of that empty chair only drew my focus more intently to all that I had lost.  One of our traditions was that we would go around the room and everyone would say what they were thankful for that year.  When it came my turn to speak I said “I am thankful I was able to get out of bed this morning because all I wanted to do was stay home and cry.”

Grief in the early years can be so cruel and the journey so difficult because it takes the world as we know it and literally turns it 180 degrees.  Holidays, which used to bring joy and celebration, instead become a dreaded time each year filled with anxiety about how we can survive.

Good fortune smiled on me in my early years of grief.  I participated in one of the best grief programs available as a member of a Compassionate Friends Chapter where I could share my feelings and learn from others about how they survived the holidays.   I learned early on that I needed to take care of myself and only participate in activities that I could handle.  Thankfully, I also discovered that it was okay to keep traditions that worked for me and to change and make new traditions as well.

Somehow, I survived by understanding what worked for me each holiday.  Giving to others became part of my survival plan at Christmas.  There was something very healing about being a father who had no daughter to buy a gift for, giving a gift to a daughter who had no father to receive a gift from.  As the years went by and I continued to process my loss, I began to embrace the new and different life grief had given me.  Grief had taught me that my love for Ashley remained alive and strong in my heart, and that it was up to me to find creative ways to express that love.  I vowed every day that I would be Ashley’s daddy for as long as I live, not for as long as she lived.

I can’t tell you the exact year but one morning I woke up as Thanksgiving was approaching.  A thought just enveloped me; that I wasn’t honoring Ashley by hiding from the holiday and that I was going to try something new.  I made the decision that I was going to celebrate full speed in honor of her life.  I planned an extravagant dinner; I spent two days preparing and hosting a true feast.  For reasons I may never fully understand, it was an incredible Thanksgiving.  We all went around the room and said what we were thankful for.  When it came my turn to speak I said, “I am so very thankful that I was given the honor of being Ashley’s daddy for 18 wonderful years.”

Today, I can honestly tell you that I fully embrace the holiday season; Ashley would want me to.  After 15 years I still cry for what I have lost, but in the next moment I can smile for all that I had and continue to have.  Getting from there to here was not easy; I had no road map and had to trust each of the steps forward while not losing faith when I would take some steps backwards.

My story is not unique; there are tens of thousands of others like me who have found their way back into life because they did not walk alone and had the support of The Compassionate Friends.  Wherever you are on your journey, my hope is that you will take the time to wrap yourself in a blanket of memories of your loved one whenever you can.  Please take care of yourself and seek support from those who understand your grief and will allow you to move at your own pace.  Do things your way, and even when all you can see is that they have died, take a breath, pause and remember that they also lived.  And because they lived, our love for them lives on in every tear, every smile and in every precious memory.

Have a gentle Thanksgiving,

Find a Local Chapter

Use the chapter locator to find out information about chapters in your area. Locate a Chapter by selecting your state and zip code.

Comments (12)

  • Thank you for this Alan. It is nearing 15 years for me also and I can say that I now do find joy in celebrating, but it took a long time and lots of TCF conventions and TCF friends to get me to this day.

  • Beautiful as always Alan….. I am sure you will not mind if I shared this on Brian’s page…. I am leaving to go to my daughter’s today and it is many years spending the holidays without Brian. I know as you said… Ashley would want you to celebrated the holidays… I know in my heart Brian wants the same… Brian loved the holidays… he started to get excited with Halloween… then Thanksgiving but his favorite being Christmas…. I will honor his wishes this year again and try my best to celebrate what I have in life…. Thanks again dear Friend.. Love You….<3

  • Dear Allan, This is Millie in NOLA. October was 3 years we lost our beautiful MARIPOSA Chelsea. My heart aches for her presence. I haven’t gotten to the point of having Holidays here at home. It saddens me. We will be traveling to Ga. Your story is lovely and very touching. My Chelsea loved helping me decorate.. Hope to find the will to celebrate again at home someday..

  • Thank you Alan. After 15 years, I still struggle being alone on the Holidays. It helps that someone really gets it. It is actually less stressful for me to be alone than to worry how I might feel among those who don’t get it. I am preparing a Thanksgiving feast for myself in honor of my son and the memories that I have of spending Thanksgiving together.

  • Thanksgiving in Canada is long gone, however your message will help us get through the next holiday. Thank you Alan.

  • In my short time as a member of this club, I realized that I had to continue to live my life for my other kids and grandkids. My son was devoted to his niece and would have been crazy over his nephew he never got to meet. So, I carry on. Life as usual. Well, not quite. I have my moments, as we all do, but they are not so much tear filled anymore, as they are just heavy hearted sighs now. Holidays just remind me of the great memories we had, and life goes on. I hope you all can get to live your lives as I do. My grief is tucked away and I carry it as a reminder of a great kid I raised and loved with everybit of my soul. He is at peace now.

  • Dear Alan, Thank your beautiful and inspiring story. I lost Heidi 10 years ago Mother’s Day when she was hit by a car while riding her bike. My first TCF meeting was at the Dec Candle Lighting with Debbie and Mark Rambis in Savannah, Ga. I have since moved to the Richmond, Va area to be closer to Heidi’s sister. I attended your wonderful seminar/presentation in Fredericksburg, Va last April. I have celebrated or decorated for the holidays in 10 years. This year I have toying with idea of getting a small tree for family, and Heidi’s ornaments. Heidi loved holidays, and i would be celebrating Heidi!

    Thank you for your timely inspiration.

    Many Blessings,
    Wishing you Peace and Light,

    • Dear Sandy, I will pass along your comments to Alan. I know he will like to hear how much he has inspired and helped you, Cathy

  • Thank you Alan.
    Here I sit this Thanksgiving 2019 morning at 4:30 am.., with tears flowing, and I see this on TCF.
    My son and only child Joe, died May 18th, 2017 before turning 32.
    My life shattered that day. He loved holidays, all of them.
    I’m still early in this journey and it is very painful. He left me 3 beautiful grandchildren. When I’m with them each time, I experience joy and sadness. Sometimes the sadness overwhelms me and I have to leave.
    I know he would not want that.
    Your comment about being your daughter’s Dad for as long as you live, not just for as long as she lived hit me hard. I am still Joe’s Mom, and the children are still his children until we pass, that didn’t change when he passed. He mattered., and still lives within us. Hopefully God will see us through. Thank you.

  • Thank you for the word ‘Gentle’ ,
    We just lost our son in August of this year. He was an innocent passenger in a car accident. There are still “no words” , but one by one I find new meaning in old words.

  • I am glad to know I am not different because I miss my two kids that died 6 and 7 years ago.

Comments are closed.

Sign Up for the Compassionate Friends Newsletter

  • Phone: 877.969.0010
© 2024 The Compassionate Friends. Privacy Policy
This site was donated by the Open to Hope Foundation in loving memory of Scott Preston Horsley.
BBB Accredited Charity Best America Independent Charities of America 2012 Top Ten Grief & Loss