Grief and Gratitude at Thanksgiving

I was at the women’s medium security prison in Framingham Sunday where I celebrated the Thanksgiving liturgy for them.  Presiding at Framingham for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Mothers Day is, as you might imagine, rather sad.

I began by telling them that that day was the 16th anniversary of the death of my niece Megan who died at 19 after a 3-year battle against leukemia.  Three days earlier it was the six-month anniversary of Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, S.J.’s sudden death at 46 years of age.  Lúcás is my best friend.

I told them I had talked with my sister, Deb, Megan’s mom, about how much I was grieving over Lúcás’s death this thanksgiving.  I told her that I realized I would mourn him the rest of my life and she simply said, yes.

The women at Framingham felt comforted that I knew what grief was like at Thanksgiving. 

Everyone says they know some people who have it hard at the holidays.  People don’t feel that they can grieve at the holidays; they don’t want to spoil others’ Thanksgiving, they say.  But I think it would be good if we gave one another permission to grieve, even, actually especially on Thanksgiving.

I reminded them that Thanksgiving became a national holiday when Lincoln proclaimed it in October 3, 1863.  The Proclamation followed after the battle of Gettysburg, where there were 46,000 casualties, including nearly 8,000 killed.  In fact Lincoln would deliver the Gettysburg address on November 19th, but a few days before the first national celebration of thanksgiving.  Grief was in the air, and in the proclamation: Lincoln asks his fellow citizens to commend to the “tender care” of our God “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

People think they cant grieve at Thanksgiving.  But we have always grieved at thanksgiving and we will again this year.  Like me mourning my friend; my sister, her daughter; and, these women, their ruptured lives.  Contrary to common wisdom, real thanksgiving prompts grief.  I am so thankful for Lúcás and Deb is for Megan.  I am thankful for what I have had and what I have lost; thanksgiving makes me grieve.

But that’s ok. 

It is ok to grieve on Thanksgiving, because when we grieve we feel how much the love is between ourselves and those whom we lost.  When we feel that love, we are grateful for that gift.  They go hand in hand.  I am as grateful for the grief as I am for the love.

As I watch my students prepare to go home for Thanksgiving day, I inevitably think that the holiday involves a journey, a long journey in fact for many Americans.  It would be good for us to think, as I believe Lincoln did, that Thanksgiving marks a pause on that bigger journey, life’s journey, where we gather for a moment with loved ones to count our blessings. 

If tears should fall, it will be for all of our blessings, those with us and those who have gone ahead.   

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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