Our family has a longtime tradition of making “thankful hands” to decorate our Thanksgiving table. We trace our hands on colored paper, cut them out, and write something we are thankful for on each one (for those going “umm, why colored paper hands?!?”, the activity harkens back to the preschool years when these cut-out handprints became turkeys during the holiday week). Then we scatter the thankful hands across the table and during the meal take turns reading the ones closest to us out loud. Thanksgiving is by far our favorite family holiday with its focus on family, food, and gratitude.
But even favorite holidays often come with emotional baggage.
For many of us, 2021 may be a return to Thanksgiving traditions after the COVID year of 2020. For others, 2021 may continue to include disconnect, inability to travel to see loved ones, or broken relationships or traditions. For all of us, holidays often bring a complex combination of celebration and challenge – be it family strain, travel logistics, or the empty seat at the table reminding us of loss.
For my family, 2017 was our most challenging Thanksgiving. We had just lost Matt, my husband of almost 20 years and my 12- and 15-year-old daughters’ dad, to pancreatic cancer. Thanksgiving ended up being just two weeks after his memorial service. Our most beloved holiday came at a time when, to be frank, we were feeling anything but thankful or celebratory.
I called a family meeting to discuss the situation. What should we do for Thanksgiving? Should we attempt to recreate our family tradition of big cooked meal, or should we maybe travel out of town and do something different knowing it could be a hard day? My girls were adamant – Thanksgiving must go on per tradition. In retrospect, this makes perfect sense. They’d already lost their father so couldn’t bear the idea of also losing beloved traditions. To me, this was daunting. I was still in pure shock, and simply remembering to put dinner on the table on a school night was often a struggle. I wasn’t sure the whole day wouldn’t implode in a puddle of tears and grief, but I decided to try.
It turned out to be a beautiful fall day. We made all the food and as the pies went in the oven I got out the colored paper and asked the girls if we wanted to do our thankful hands. They said yes, of course, so I cut a few out. I figured we were mostly going through the motions, that we’d each write a handful and then be done.
But sometimes children really do lead the way. My half-dozen thankful hands were completed in a heartbeat, and the girls demanded more and more and more. We ended up spending over an hour cutting & writing thankful hands. As we read them aloud over dinner I was astonished at their wisdom. They gave thanks for:
And for being able to have Thanksgiving with me and each other.
Now, for the record, there were also plenty of tears this holiday. But it highlighted to me something really important about gratitude.
Giving thanks when we are suffering is hard. The heart and mind instinctively want to laser focus on one thing, and when hurt or loss or pain is present it can make it difficult to recognize blessings in our lives.
And yet they do exist. The truth is that gratitude and thankfulness can co-exist alongside pain. Gratitude doesn’t diminish the magnitude of the hurt, but it can soften its blow by reminding us of what we still have to be thankful for.
Whether you are joyfully returning to beloved traditions post-COVID, or whether you are experiencing loss, hurt, or pain this holiday season, consider giving one of these Giving Thanks activities a try. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find.
I hope you and your family find ways to give thanks this holiday season.
Interested in learning more? Last year at this time I wrote about the positive effects of gratitude on mental health and ways to cultivate gratitude year-round.