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Gratitude and Grief: Holidays are complicated

Posted by Annie Gonzalez Milliken // November 30th 2013 // Stories and Voices, Thanksgivukkah, UUA // no comments

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When I was a kid my Thanksgiving holidays looked a lot like the seasonal TV commercials. We would gather at my maternal grandparents’ house, all the aunts, uncles and cousins. The food was delicious and plentiful, the family squabbles were bearable and the grown-ups talked and laughed at the big table while us kids ran around playing together.

Then, when I was twelve, everything changed. My grandfather died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day in 1997. Soon it was discovered that my grandmother had Dementia. My mother and her four siblings began struggling over what to do, and conflicts erupted. We stopped celebrating Thanksgiving with that side of the family.

And that’s how it is with holidays. They’re complicated.

Holidays are complicated for the queer person who hasn’t come out yet to his extended family.

Holidays are complicated for the college student who can’t afford the plane ticket home.

Holidays are complicated for the person whose sister is stationed in far away in Afghanistan.

The single mother who works on Thanksgiving because she needs the holiday pay, the transwoman whose uncle refuses to use the correct pronouns, the young man who no longer follows the religion of his parents: Thanksgiving is complicated for all of these people.

These are just a few of the scenarios people face as we approach Thanksgiving. Others may be dealing with changing family structures due to separation from partners or the stress of deeply rooted political disagreements among relatives.

As Unitarian Universalists we recognize the joys and the sorrows of life. Our theology is rich and complex, big enough to hold gratitude right alongside pain and sorrow. We draw on many sources of wisdom in our tradition, and we know what it means to sit patiently with paradox. We don’t settle for easy answers nor do we give into despair. Instead, we reach out to one another.

My mother has a friend named Mary, a UU church friend, who has called her on every Thanksgiving since my grandpa died. Mary’s calls mean a lot to my mom. They say “Hey, I love you, and I remember that this holiday is difficult for you, and even though your dad has been dead for 16 years I know you still think of his death today.”

As we honor the complexity of Thanksgiving in people’s personal lives, we UUs can reach out to others. We can reach out to individuals we know and love, and we can reach out to whole communities! On Facebook I saw that Tim Atkins, a young Director of Religious Education, was excited about organizing a holiday meal at Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, getting a new multigenerational tradition started. In Peoria, Illinois the Universalist Unitarian Church is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for 75 Red Cross workers who have come from out of town to do local tornado relief work. Examples abound and there are many ways we can connect with loved ones and strangers alike at Thanksgiving through our faith communities.

As for my parents and brother? They will be with fellow Unitarian Universalists on Thanksgiving, eating at a familiar table with friends they’ve known for over 20 years. Grief will be present, and so will much gratitude and plenty of grace. Meanwhile I’ll be miles away, missing them, but excited to be celebrating Thanksgiving with my future in-laws and creating new traditions with my fiancé.

Thanksgiving is complicated for a million reasons. Fortunately we have a theology that can hold our joys and our sorrow, our grief and our gratitude. We have a faith that calls us to reach out to one another, start new traditions, and live our love on Thanksgiving Day and every day. And for that I am truly grateful.


Resources for complicated holidays:

This reflection on the complexities of grief, grace and gratitude comes from the Rev. Julia Corbett-Hemeyer at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Muncie.

This blogpost by Rev. Kristin Maier on grieving at the holidays is directed toward a particular congregation, the UU Fellowship of Northfield, but contains wisdom for all UUs.

This guide from the rainbow hub gives tips for queer folks who face heterosexism at the holidays.

And for a humorous take on avoiding political disagreements, you can check out the wisdom of Mark Shields and David Brooks in their guide to holiday civility.



About the Author

Annie is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and currently serves our faith as the Young Adult and Campus Ministry Associate for the Unitarian Universalist Association.
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