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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Practicing Gratitude During a Very Sad Thanksgiving


Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

by Catharine Hannay

It's two days before Thanksgiving, and like many of you, my husband and I are following COVID guidelines and not gathering with friends and family. 

This would be a very hard week for me even without the pandemic. I can't bake a pumpkin pie with my mom, since she died of brain cancer a few years ago. And I can't sit and chat with my aunt, who died suddenly last summer. 

While your circumstances are different from mine, I'm sure this is a challenging week for you, too. So I'd like to share some thoughts on practicing gratitude in challenging times.

This is adapted from a post I published in May. Remember May? Back when we thought we were nearly done with quarantine, and school would be back to normal in the fall?  (Is there a hybrid emoji that shows someone hysterically laughing or crying, but you're not sure which?)

Practicing Gratitude in Challenging Times

I keep thinking about the Thanksgiving blessing my uncle gave a few years ago based on 1 Thessalonians 5:18 “Be grateful in all things.”

The idea is to be grateful in all things, not necessarily for all things. This was quite a moving prayer, as it was such an awful time for our family—both my mother and my uncle himself were seriously ill. We weren't at all happy about the challenges we were facing, but we did feel tremendously grateful for the outpouring of love and support from our friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

The point of this blessing is to look for the good. To find something positive to focus on rather than sinking into cynicism or despair.

Gratitude, Not Platitudes

There is so much going so badly for so many people right now that I want to be very clear about this.  I am not advocating sweeping problems under the rug.

A few months ago, Austin Kleon (of Steal Like and Artist fame) posted that he lost it when he saw “a hand-painted sign that read EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY.” 

“What f----ing planet are these people living on?  
No, I don’t feel alright! None of us feel alright!! Can't you see what's going on?!?!?... 
NOT everything will be okay BUT SOME THINGS WILL. 
(See: 'Not Everything Will Be OK')

As for me, since I've been dealing with so much grief the past few years, I snapped at a friend who was trying to comfort me with platitudes. 

Trust me, there are situations where it's impossible to look on the bright side  or find the silver lining.  (Which part of D.E.A.D. did you not understand?)

This isn't about being a Pollyanna... or maybe it is.

"The Glad Game"

The original Pollyanna from the children's book is able to find something about everything to be glad about,  but she isn't endlessly cheerful. 

As Ruth Graham points out in The Atlantic:

Author Eleanor H. Porter, who died in 1920, battled Pollyanna's unsophisticated reputation in her time. You know I have been made to suffer from the Pollyanna books. I have been placed often in a false light. People have thought that Pollyanna chirped that she was 'glad' at everything, she said in one interview. I have never believed that we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil...
Pollyanna's 'glad game'...  goes beyond simple positive thinking. Pollyanna isn't always cheerful; she cries over disappointments large and small, and initially refuses to play the game when she suffers a major tragedy.

A Choice, not an Imposition

Novelist Anne Tyler said, 
I remember when my husband died[...] I thought, I don't know how I'm going to get through the rest of my life without him. And then I thought, well, okay, but at least right now, I'm drinking this cup of coffee, and it tastes good, and it's a nice sunny morning, and I'll just get through this ... and I do think that most people who lose a wife or a husband stumble across that approach to it.
 (See: 'A Phone Call Changes Everything')

This is a personal choice, not something imposed by other people. 

Imagine how insensitive it would be for someone else to tell Anne Tyler, That's too bad your husband died, but you should appreciate your coffee.

I don't think anyone would really go that far, but I do know someone who was given a 'gratitude journal' after being hospitalized for depression. As you can imagine, she didn't find it particularly helpful.


Of course I'm not grateful for COVID-19. I don't think there's anyone in the world who's sadistic enough to be grateful for a global pandemic. On the other hand, it's possible for each of us to find something to be grateful for in the midst of the confusion and suffering. This isn't denial of reality; it's a deliberate choice of where to focus our attention. 

I'm grateful to be staying in a house with a yard, so I have a view of trees and a chance to get outdoors.

I'm grateful to the members of my family I've become closer to during our struggles of the past few years.

And I'm grateful to all of the amazing people I've met through Mindful Teachers, who are working in a variety of ways to spread mindfulness and compassion in their communities around the world.

Thank you.

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)

Related Posts

Songs About Gratitude, part 1 and part 2