On Thanksgiving, Grief and the Practice of Gratitude

By October 14, 2021Article

This past weekend, many of us Canadians celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday.  It’s a time when we get together with family or other loved ones.  We eat turkey or ham… or some of us order in Swiss Chalet or pizza.  (Hey, no judgment zone here! 😉 )  And we try to focus on the good gifts in our lives.

No matter the meal, for as long as I can remember, my family has had a tradition of going around the Thanksgiving table and taking turns sharing one or two things we are thankful for.  Like everyone, there have been all kinds of seasons and transitions we have gone through as a family.  Weddings, divorce, births, miscarriages, businesses begun and closed, cross-country moves, deaths of people we love and more.  But no matter what any of us have gone through, we have come back to this ritual.  There is always always something to be grateful for.

This year my sister and her husband hosted 21 of us for Thanksgiving weekend.  We did go around and say what we’re thankful for.  But she also added this beautiful visual on one of her walls.  The title reads, “I’m Grateful For…”  Everyone from my 6 year old niece to my 72 year old father wrote things that they are thankful for as they came to mind.  It was neat to see the blank white poster board fill up over the course of the weekend.


The Dangers of Toxic Positivity

Let me be clear:  This is not about what is now becoming known as the unhealthy idea of “toxic positivity”.  According to this article in Medical News Today, “toxic positivity is an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic.”

In no way am I a proponent of the concept that when we have experienced a loss of any kind, all we need to do is find the good or positive in life to feel happy again.  These kinds of ideas have been quite hurtful to people in grief.

“You’ve just lost a baby.  But you can be grateful that at least you have other children.”

“You’re going through a divorce.  But thank God you have managed to stay amicable.”

Even the well-meaning, “Well at least they’re in a better place” can fall flat, leaving the mourner thinking, “Maybe they are in a better place, but I’m aching to see them again. I want them here.”

No, these kinds of platitudes are annoying or unhelpful at the least.  No one wants to be around a persistent “Pollyanna” who insists on life being sunshine and roses all the time.  And at worst, they can be harmful, a diminishing or undermining of a person’s real, raw pain.

But as I have studied the idea of gratitude over the last couple of years, a few concepts have emerged that have been quite impactful in my own life, both personally and professionally.

First of all, in positive psychology research, the science of joy is actually closely connected to the science of gratitude.   People often think that joyful people are grateful (because they have so much good in their lives to be grateful for).  But study after study has come back with the reverse idea.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, research scientist and storyteller Brené Brown writes this:

“Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.”

It’s not that joyful people are grateful people.  But rather grateful people are joyful people.  Those who prioritize being grateful live with more joy on a consistent basis.

The Difference Between Happiness and Joy

Secondly (and this one is huge for those going through a difficult time!) happiness and joy are not the same thing.  Brown writes,

“People [study participants] were quick to point out the difference between happiness and joy… as the difference between a human emotion that’s connected to circumstance and a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.”

Brown refers to a Methodist minister Anne Robertson’s explanation of the difference between the two ideas:

“The Greek word for happiness is “makarios”, used to describe freedom of the rich from the normal cares and worries, or someone who receives some kind of good fortune such as money or health.  However, the Greek word for joy is “chario” which was described by the ancient Greeks as ‘culmination of being’ and the ‘good mood of the soul’.”

Practice Makes Progress

Another related truth I’ve read about and certainly experienced in my own life is that the science of gratitude requires a practice of gratitude.  Knowledge isn’t enough.  We need to practice it.  And not just when we are around the Thanksgiving table.

Here’s a bit of an obvious metaphor but bear with me.  We can intellectually know all about the benefits of moving our bodies, but if we don’t do so regularly, we won’t reap the health benefits of exercise.  The more we can cultivate the spiritual practice of giving thanks, the more access we will have to the joy connected to it – even when we go through difficult times.

What could this practice practically look like?

A gratitude practice could include (but is no way limited to!):

  • writing in a gratitude journal
  • creating gratitude art or a gratitude jar
  • doing daily gratitude meditations or prayers

I’ve Got My Top 10 Thanksgiving List.  Now What?

You might be asking yourself, “What will I write about after I’ve got the basics down?”  Everyone can find it easy to write the “grateful go-to’s” of food, family, shelter, friends, work, etc.  If you’re my 13 year old son, video games regularly makes the list!  But where do we go from there?

Several years ago, I accepted the “joy dare” offered by Ann Voskamp in her book “One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are”.  She challenges her readers to write down three things each day for a year so that by the end of the year, you have over 1000 gifts (and you’ll have more joy in your life!)

I realized that after writing the typical “food, friends, family” down, I begin to notice more of the “little” things:



  1. The way the fall leaves crunch under my feet.
  2. Watching the older man pick out the perfect anniversary card.
  3. The sunrise over the Toronto skyline as I drive to work.
  4. The trust of strangers who share the intimate details of their stories with me.
  5. Belting out Disney tunes with my daughter as we wash up dinner’s dishes.


Making a Moment

Over time, I began really tasting that first sip of coffee in the morning.  I started lighting candles to “make a moment” for dinner with the family.  Now, having said this, I admit that writing these things down hasn’t been a daily practice for me for a while.  But over time, I have been able to increase the moments I take to slow down long enough to press pause and soak up whatever “present moment” I find myself in.  And these “little things” have become so life-giving for me… especially when I’m in the more challenging seasons of my life.  They are sips of cool water in an otherwise desert time.

Let me conclude by saying that I’m certainly not trying to tell anyone what to do – especially those of you who are in the midst of the throes of grief.  If this is you, please know that I believe that the best person I think you should be listening to… is YOU.  No author or speaker, grief expert, spiritual guru or well-meaning friend is able to guide us like our own inner intuition can when we become still enough to listen to its guidance about the next best step.

But I hope that others of you read this and feel the invitation to begin or pick up again a new practice that will serve you well… whether you are on the mountaintop of joy or about to move through the valley of despair.  We talk about how the Christmas season shouldn’t be the only time we practice generosity.  And Thanksgiving weekend isn’t the only time to count your blessings.  My experience is that making gratitude a practice can be a powerful key to a more meaningful and richer way of living life for however many days we are given.

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