Yesterday was Thanksgiving. Of course, I always take comfort in Disney, so I try to heed the advice of Walt Disney who said, “The more you are in a state of gratitude, the more you will attract things to be grateful for.” I have really tried to embrace that attitude and, for the most part, it helps me. I also give myself permission to acknowledge the difficult moments and not force myself to deny or spin those moments.
The truth is that Thanksgiving is a bittersweet holiday for me. Yesterday, I awoke teary, thinking about the family I have lost. These were the people to whom I was closest. While I am indeed grateful to be included in the plans of my friends, I cannot escape the feeling of aloneness. Though I have learned to coexist with grief, this is one of those days when I cannot fight the tears.
I think about my last Thanksgiving with my dad, spent in the hospital, where I schlepped a full turkey dinner that he ate, mostly, to make me feel better because I had been crying and pleading with him to eat and get stronger. My last Thanksgiving with Ben was melancholy because he was understandably down about so many things regarding his ALS, including not wanting to eat pureed versions of traditional holiday dishes. Although it was easy to lose sight of it at the time, we did have things for which to be thankful. Being able to feel and express gratitude for each other was indeed a superpower because it gave us perspective to see the love that was there, and even to have some laughs. The love in those memories continues to warm my heart, despite the lingering sadness.
I think of my first Thanksgivings without Ben. It is my good fortune to have friends who included me in their Thanksgiving plans. I love my friends and spending time with them, and I sincerely appreciated the invitations, but the feeling of aloneness hovered. I returned to my apartment from these occasions in tears, weighed down by the unhappiness of not having any close family anymore and not knowing where I really belonged. At this time, my aunt Eleanor’s Alzheimer’s disease had also progressed to a point where I had lost the person I knew and each visit with her was yet another stinging reminder of my loss of family.
After a couple of greatly appreciated but painful Thanksgivings, one year, I decided to ignore the holiday, declining invitations and staying at home. It did not feel good either. But hey, I tried. Even when I have an epic fail as I did that holiday, I always pat myself on the back for striving to reshape my life and address the areas that are especially troubling to me.
This year, I originally planned to travel to London to completely avoid the discomfort of Thanksgiving and immerse myself in one of my favorite places, visiting people I love, too. For a couple of reasons- all positive and optimistic, by the way- I decided to postpone my trip. Still, it left me here with my discomfort. Who knows? I might have felt discomfort in London, too, knowing that I went away because I did not especially want or need to be home. I clearly miss the dependable comfort of family. Maybe, one day I will find it again. Maybe, being in a state of gratitude will help to manifest it. Too much of the touchy-feely laws of attraction stuff? Maybe. Or, maybe not!
As I said, I do have wonderful friends, and yesterday, I spent a lovely Thanksgiving evening with them. Again, I returned home feeling a mix of emotions. I let myself feel the heaviness of grief and missing my loved ones. I also let myself feel content that I did enjoy my time with dear friends. Being honest with my feelings- the positive and the negative- helps me to reflect honestly on gratitude and the spirit of Thanksgiving. I believe that it is in my acceptance of the bad moments, or days, that I began to understand what Walt meant by being in a state of gratitude. I make a practice of acknowledging gratitude, but I do not force myself to suppress my emotions.
In the 1960 Walt Disney Productions film Pollyana, Pollyanna describes the “Glad Game.” This was a game that Pollyana’s father taught her to deal with disappointment, in which you turn every tough situation around and think about something you are glad about regarding that situation. As time has passed, I have learned that being “in a state of gratitude” is not to naively play the Glad Game (click for more). It is not to ignore the bad experiences or diminish their impact, but, instead, to draw upon the especially important superpower of perspective. I have a good cry when I need to, or when something triggers it, but I also acknowledge and welcome experiences or insights into those tough times that compel gratitude.
For me, I struggle with a lack of confidence, and I want to frame my gratitude list this year in the context of achievements, so I can document and hopefully clearly see growth.
- I have said it before, but can never say enough, that I am grateful for my friends, who have shown me such kindness, generosity, compassion, and encouragement. I am grateful that I emerged from the darker days of grief to be able to enjoy creating new memories with them.
- I am grateful for my love of animals, as they are often more intuitive and genuine than humans. And, they completely delight me! Doing animal encounters and interacting with animals gives me such a sense of fulfillment. It connects me to my dad because he also deeply loved animals. I did plan to do a penguin encounter with Ben, but a winter storm made travel in an ambulette and with his wheelchair too daunting. I did feel guilty doing my first penguin encounter without Ben. But, I have learned that I take Ben everywhere with me, and even when that is not enough, it is something. For this, too, I am grateful.
- I am grateful to be working with Hope Loves Company, facilitating online “hangouts” for kids who have a family member with ALS, leading crafts workshops at the organization’s online camp event, and participating in the development of new endeavors. I am sorry to meet these young people at this devastating time in their lives, but grateful when I can bring them some laughs, maybe some insight, and an opportunity to socialize with other young people who share the experience of ALS in their families.
- I originally began a club in my school intended for students who are caregivers for ill family members or even helping to raise their siblings. It has shaped up to be a club of caring, and somewhat shy, kids who want to find themselves and support others in school, in the local and global community. I am grateful that my club has worked to raise awareness in our school about student family caregivers and their struggles. We have conducted events for November’s National Caregivers Month. I have also been leading professional development sessions for teachers and staff that focus on addressing the needs of student family caregivers. I am grateful and proud to have made caregiving a part of our school’s dialogue.
- I am grateful to find comfort in the arts and in my creative endeavors. Blogging has been tremendously helpful, and I am grateful to know that readers find comfort in my words and I am thankful to have connected with many people.
- I am grateful to have been working diligently on my writing. I take classes and joined writing groups to help hone my skills and learn about the publishing world. I have a caregiving book and picture books in progress. I mustered the confidence to share drafts with beta readers and have gotten positive feedback and constructive criticism. I am hopeful and optimistic about being a published author.
- I am grateful to Walt Disney and all he created for providing me with entertainment, inspiration, motivation, joy, and opportunities to reflect and sort through my feelings. I am grateful to believe that wishes can come true and that there will one day be a cure for ALS and all devastating and terminal diseases. I am grateful for my sense of whimsy and belief that if you wish and dream enough, your wish will come true. It lets me know that I will have even more to be grateful for next year!
There are and there will likely continue to be setbacks and I remain consumed with feelings of wanting to be respectful to Ben’s memory and to make my dad, mom, and grandma proud. My memories will accompany and guide me on my journey and will always be a part of me, and that gives me great comfort and peace. And, I keep reminding myself of what Christopher Robin said to Pooh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” I know that I will be okay because I have the superpower of gratitude that allows me to embrace all my emotions and seek a balance between positive and negative moments and thoughts.
Thank you for indulging this reflection and for sharing in my experiences in caregiving and grief. I always welcome you to share your own in the comments.
With all good wishes,