As the girls and I celebrated Thanksgiving 2017, there are so many things that our hearts are so grateful for. We had the blessing of being surrounded in complete love and joy by my husband’s family as our annual Thanksgiving traditions continue. Our family begin arriving on the Sunday before Thanksgiving with Nana and one nephew and one niece. Our family continued to arrive throughout the week and also brought some additional family friends. At the last count, I believe I was close to feeding 60 with a total of 58 people. The girls and I love to prepare for this time with our family, and we completely love having our home filled with those we love and with lots and lots of laughter.
My husband died in August 2011 from a work related accident, and I have been very thankful that his family has continued to share in this special Thanksgiving tradition with us each year. I can always see the blessing that it is for my girls to be around their dad’s mom and siblings. They love to hear the stories about their dad and to see each year that they continue to be a part of this big, loving family. I also know that being with Kirk’s girls is a huge blessing for the family. Just as being around the family helps my girls to feel a little closer to their daddy that they miss so much, I am convinced that it is a blessing for his family to continue to be such a special and important part of Kirk’s girls’ lives. It is a double blessing. Each year, I feel so much gratitude at this time as our house is full of our family that surrounds us in love and joy.
Weeks of planning, shopping, and lists go into the preparation to get ready for our Thanksgiving week. We usually have a large crowd on Wednesday night for dinner, Thursday for Thanksgiving, and then on Friday we have a big breakfast and large dinner as we continue to enjoy our family time together. I always giggle as I continue my trips to Walmart and as the cashiers notice my many trips in and out of the store to prepare. Because this is our holiday with Kirk’s side of the family, then it is also always a priority to have all of the Christmas decorating done so that we are in full holiday spirit mode.
Each year the family continues to grow as my husband’s 10 brothers’ and sisters’ kids are now also having their own children. We always have new little ones to enjoy, and then as the younger children get a little older then they are often trying to understand what the story is about my husband and my son. Without fail, some of them will ask about PK and/or my husband. This time my little nephew was asking about my son PK. He is just 5, and he had heard that my son died but he was trying to sort out the details. (My only son PK was killed in a car accident at the age of 18 in June 2013.) Aiden asked, “So why did PK die?” Wow. If that isn’t the question of my life that I have no answer for. When trying to answer Aiden’s questions then I tried to keep everything in 5 year old terms. I don’t mind the kids’ questions when they ask. I know that they want to understand. It is impossible for them to be in my house and not wonder about PK as his pictures are scattered throughout our home with his sisters’ pictures. My Thanksgiving week is always filled with much gratitude about many things; however, grief is always a part of my week as well.
Grief is described in many ways by the people who are experiencing it. We all experience and express grief differently. Grief is not predictable. A sweet new friend of mine who has recently become widowed was married for close to 40 years. Her grief is new, and she is trying to adjust to her “new normal”. Someone else who had become widowed said, “Well at least you had your husband for almost 40 years as I only had mine for 18 years. You should be thankful for the 40 years that you had with him.” Often those who have experienced grief are still working through their own feelings and so when someone else is grieving then their first reaction is to share their experience with the person that is grieving. My thought is that when someone is new to grief and their loss is fresh then what they really need from those in their own lives are listeners. People who have the ability to hear their pain and to comfort them and to be with them as they grieve.
I wished that the person who had said those words to this new widow would have instead just listened to her pain. Her grief is fresh. Of course she is thankful for all of the years that she had with her husband. She will have many moments of gratitude for the life that they shared together and for their children and for all of her moments that she shared with him. However, this thankfulness does not remove the pain that she has as she experiences the loss of his presence in her life. This thankfulness does not remove the longing that she feels to have her husband with her. All of these feelings are a part of grief and are normal. It is important for her to be able to grieve the loss of her husband, to be able to give herself time to adjust to her new normal after sharing 40 years with her husband, and for her to understand that the longing that she has for his continued presence in her life is a normal part of the grieving process.
Gratitude most definitely can be a part of the grieving process, but it is important for the griever to be able to express it rather than to be told what they must be grateful for. I remember a time after my only son had died. As I have shared before, I have always been told that the death of a child is the worst experience, and I am a complete believer. The grief is so overwhelming and all consuming. I wanted to find much gratitude still in my life as I am a big believer in how important gratitude is in our lives and to our happiness. However, I was most definitely concerned about my capability in this area after burying my only son.
I remember my friend telling me of a family that he knew who had their 10 year old son killed not that long after my son had died. He shared the events surrounding the death of the 10 year old boy and told me about his parents and shared some about their life. My heart was broken for them. Whenever I hear of a parent losing a child now, my heart immediately feels so much pain for them. I remember that my friend did not say to me, “Now Kristi, you should be thankful that you got 8 more years with your son than they did.” I think he knew me well enough to know that I desperately wanted so many more than that. I think he truly understood my longing for so many more years with my son. However, that did not change how grateful I was for each moment that I ever had with my son. This also does not change the pain and grief that I have for my son, and it did not change the sharp pains of hurt that I felt for a new set of parents who were burying their son.
I think that gratitude and longing can exist simultaneously in our hearts and minds as we grieve. I can think of many instances where my heart has been full of gratitude for the time with my son and yet at the same time my grief and longing to have him still with me felt so overwhelming and heartbreakingly painful. There are many moments for the grievers that bring these times about. Often for parents who have lost children, we grieve all of the moments that we still had coming. I remember sitting at what should have been my son’s high school graduation. I remember looking at that empty chair that they had set aside for PK and placed flowers on it to honor his memory. My heart was so full of gratitude for whoever had the compassion and thoughtfulness to set that chair out to honor my son. Tears streamed from me in deep thankfulness that he was remembered and honored at what should have been his high school graduation. However, the longing, pain, and grief that I felt simultaneously is difficult to even put into words.
Attending college football games is another time that this happens for me currently. The girls and I love to go to football games. Each year, we try to hit at least one game at U of A, ASU, and UCA. It just so happens that these are the three schools that my son was looking at as future possibilities to play football at. The girls and I love to go to these games, and we have so much fun when we attend. I have much thankfulness when we are at those events; however, I also feel a tremendous longing for my son while I am there. It is impossible for me to sit in those stands without wishing that I was still able to watch my son play the game that he loved and to still see him alive and thriving.
In my grief, I continually have a choice. I could choose to avoid all circumstances that would remind me of my son and try to hide from my grief. Or I can choose to continue to try to live a full life with my daughters and to celebrate every moment that we can. I try to always choose the second one. I always try to choose to still live a full life. I choose to still go and watch and cheer at football games even though I know that I will probably have many moments of sharp pain wishing that my son was still playing. I realize that walking through the grief and acknowledging it is painful; however, I do not want to miss out on all of the joy that I also feel in those moments. I want to continually try to celebrate each moment that I had with my son while I still experience the pain and grief of his death.
I do believe that gratitude and grief can coexist. I try every day to be thankful for each moment that I had with this amazing young man. I let myself feel the longing that I still have for him to still be a part of and in my life. I let myself feel the pain of his death. I let myself feel the joy that he brought me. All of these complex emotions and thoughts can coexist. I would much rather feel all of it then none of it. I want to continue to challenge myself and my daughters to be real in our lives… to feel all of it deeply.
We must continue to battle our anxieties and fears that have come to us through these traumas. We must continue to prioritize healthy and real living… to find joy in one another, in our memories, and in all of the wonderful people that still remain here with us that are our family and friends. We will be thankful and have hearts of gratitude while we still allow ourselves to miss our guys and to feel the pain of their loss. We will do our best each day. We will love, laugh, cry, and continue to seek healing. I still long for my son with each part of who I am; however, I am ever grateful for each moment that I ever had with him.
“Grief never ends… but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith… It is the price of love.” Author Unknown