Celebrating Thanksgiving When It's Hard to Give Thanks
- 2011 3 Nov
The holiday of Thanksgiving provides us an opportunity to reflect upon all the things for which we are thankful. For most people, the upcoming season is a time for creating fond memories with family, friends and food. But for many of us, especially those who are out of work, battling health problems, or suffering a loss of some sort, it is a time when giving thanks for anything may seem nearly impossible to do.
The years following the day that my beloved 83-year-old grandmother walked downtown by herself, purchased a gun and put a bullet into her beautiful, graceful head, marked one of those times for me. Trying to make sense of her actions tore our family into shreds. Suicide takes death and loss to a whole different level. Those who are left behind must cope with much more than grief.
Instead of the natural, peaceful death that we imagine for our loved ones, there is now a violent element that we can never forget. There are pictures in our heads that can't be erased and questions in our souls that can never be answered. And the guilt (however undeserved) plunges us into a private form of hell. We second-guess everything we did, said, or failed to do for years in a futile attempt to turn back time and change the course of personal history.
Regardless of the trigger, depression and despair make it difficult to breath, to get up, and go through the motions of the day. Giving thanks never enters the radar of consciousness. But I have learned that the simple act of giving thanks is the first step away from despondency, and the beginning of a journey towards joy again.
"Out of the darkness and into the light" has been a recurring theme for me, one that I have explored in art several times. When my first husband moved out and we were separated for almost two-and-a-half years, I went through a very dark time. For years, I struggled with just how to cope when life punches you in the gut, your legs crumble out from under you, and you fall to your knees in pure anguish.
For most of us, the way out of the darkness becomes a sort of pilgrimage to unearth our authentic selves and establish a tangible, genuine, reliable connection with our Creator. And finding a way to give thanks is the key to beginning that quest.
If we really try, we can always find something, anything, for which to be thankful. If you hate your job, at least you have one. If you are sick and in pain, you may have a family who loves you and wants to minister to your needs. If you are alone and lonely, you probably have a roof over your head that is keeping you safe and secure. And if you are homeless, there is at least assistance out there via people and organizations who care and want to help. This bright-siding is not meant to minimize the pain and torment of life's most difficult circumstances. It is merely intended to illustrate that no matter how bad things are, we can always find something positive if we will try. It involves a change of perspective, a willingness to begin the healing process, and a desire to feel happy again.
We have all heard the cliché that if you look around, you can always find someone else whose problems are worse than yours. And this platitude may be no consolation when you are hurting deeply. But there is a reason that clichés persist; there is a grain of truth in them. The simple act of looking outside of yourself takes the focus away from you momentarily. And that is the essence of finding peace in the midst of chaos—moving the emphasis away from you and towards others.
I have also learned that the darkest periods of my life have a purpose. They serve not only to teach me, but also to give me empathy and understanding when others cross my path bearing their own suffering.
Several years after my grandmother's tragic suicide, our family was again plunged into the horror of this tortured act of self-destruction. My husband's younger brother, and then a few years later one of his cousins, also took their own lives. Because of my own experience with suicide, I had a deeper insight into their pain and torment. My attempts to offer love and solace were not only heartfelt, but they were given with an awareness and a comprehension of the vast array of emotions felt by those of us who are left behind to try and make sense of a loved one's desire to end their own life. I couldn't make the situation any better or any more bearable, but I could share my love with more compassion and a greater sensitivity to the circumstances.
If you are finding it difficult to give thanks this holiday season, I can relate. I have found myself in a similar situation, more than once. I can't claim to know how you feel because we are all on our own unique journeys. But I do know what it is like to be so devastated, so broken, and so despondent that life seems to hold no joy, no hope and no peace. However, there are some universal truths that can serve to deliver you from that darkness.
1. God is REAL and he LOVES us.
I KNOW this because he delivered me and he showed me, step-by-step, the way out of my own darkness. He never promised us a life without trouble, but he did promise to always walk through those troubles with us. And he often uses our experiences to teach, guide and help one another along this path we call life. God's light is a welcome beacon in the darkness, guiding us to a brighter tomorrow. And God can take the most difficult and painful of circumstances and turn them around for our good and his glory.
2. Being thankful is the first step towards changing your mindset.
Start with finding something, anything for which you can give thanks. It might be as tiny as the laughter of a child, a glimpse of the sun on a cloudy day, or the warmth of a fire in your hearth on a cold one. If you make the effort, I promise — you WILL find something. Keep saying "thank you" over and over and a wondrous thing will begin to happen. You will start discovering other things for which you are grateful. Add them to your "thank you" list. Don't stop giving thanks -- make it part of your daily routine, all throughout the day, not just in the morning or at night. And when a new "something" reveals itself, say "thank you" at that moment as well. It might be as silly as the light changing to green, or as moving and meaningful as the loving gesture of a friend or family member. Train yourself to realize that each and every "good" thing in life is a reason to celebrate and give thanks.
3. Giving to others is a gift to yourself.
Make a choice to do something to help someone else. You can start small; bring your co-worker their favorite flavor from the coffee shop. Bake a batch of cookies for the neighborhood children. Even better, volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Join a committee for a charitable cause. Give blood, comfort babies born addicted to crack, read to shut-ins at a nursing home. ANYTHING — just venture outside yourself and give of yourself to someone else. I know it feels like your well is dry and that you have nothing left to give. But you are wrong — your pain, your despair, your circumstances make you uniquely qualified to feel compassion and understand the suffering of others.
Besides helping others, we ourselves grow and mature more from the struggles of our lives than from any other situation. It you are going through a rough period right now, use this time to develop your faith, to strengthen your weaknesses, to conquer your fears, to reach out to others who are hurting too. Believe it or not, trials and misfortunes can be gifts in disguise. They are gifts that help us to hone our coping skills, bolster our resolve and fortify our convictions. They reinforce our character and serve us well when the next challenge of our lives comes along.
"Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don't try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way" (James 1:2-4).
So as we approach Thanksgiving, use this time to be thankful for what you have rather than dwelling on what you have lost. Give of yourself — you are a carefully crafted creation with unique talents, experiences and gifts that only you can share. Seek professional counseling if you need help taking the first steps. Ask God for his guidance; he IS there and he has not forsaken you! Don't isolate yourself with pain and despair as your only companions. Seek out the company of others and surround yourself with loving, caring people who can help you to see the joy that life holds.
I realize that serious circumstances may involve more guidance than a mere article or the sharing of my personal story can provide. But I want to leave you with hope, with a place to start and with the knowledge that you are not alone.
There IS an end to this sorrow, but it is you who has to take the first step to find your way, "out of the darkness and into the light." I promise you, the journey is well worth the effort and if I managed to do it, then I believe that you can too. Remember, big changes start with small steps -- are you ready to begin taking yours?
My sincerest prayer for a happy Thanksgiving to you all…
"The Lord is my shepherd. He gives me everything I need…he gives me new strength. He guides me in the right paths for the honor of his name. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid. You are with me" (Psalm 23).
Deborah J. Thompson is a writer, artist and Stephen Minister. Her articles are published by Crosswalk.com and "The Fish" family of Christian radio station websites around the country. She shares "Reflections" on Life and Marriage on her website, www.inspiredreflections.info. And she is working on her first book, Your Life, Your Choice, which gives 5 simple steps to harness the power of your choices and bring more Love, Joy and Peace into your life. Join her on Facebook and Twitter.
Original publication date: November 19, 2009
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