Britta Gustafson: In gratitude for life
This holiday season, let’s consider the implications of our humanity and hold on to what we love most.
Every Thanksgiving I reflect on one of the most cherished relationships in my life: my aunt, who was a kindred spirit, a woman who could see deep inside my heart. She loved this holiday — its spirit of togetherness, the tangible nature of cooking and sharing and nourishing those we love.
A few years ago I was present when my dear aunt passed. I held her, curled up like a child in my arms, and recalled for her the highlights of the woman she was, the life she had lived and shared and those lasting memories that I would hold in my heart forever.
It took every ounce of strength that I had to let her know that it was okay for her to leave me. It was intimate in a way that cannot be articulated. And it was an honor to be with her for that moment.
Saying a final goodbye has a permanence that is rare even in our ephemeral lives. If we are lucky, we get the chance to hold those we love close, to tell them how much they are loved and to experience with them that juncture when they transition from this life. Those final moments are as much for our dying loved ones as for those of us who are left behind in grief.
Right now, we are experiencing a global wave of deaths where people are passing alone. That is perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of our current pandemic.
It is in our nature to be social beings. Our relationships add meaning and depth to our lives.
And holidays offer us a togetherness that is much needed in our culture: a collective excuse to come together, take pause and reevaluate what matters most. Thanksgiving, in name alone, has a value for us that makes life worthwhile in spite of all the disappointments and tragedies that happen along the way. It’s a time to slow down and seek gratitude in our busy lives, to center ourselves around family and food — two things that humanity hinges upon.
And yet today we must decide if those gatherings and traditions are worth the very real risk. This year spending an evening at the communal table might mean a loss, perhaps even the loss of someone with whom we had spent the holiday or a potential downstream effect.
For me it begs the question: is that what is at the heart of our intentions?
We are urged to avoid these gatherings for the health and safety of others. And it is painful to keep longing to see our loved ones, and to return to a sense of comfort through sharing our lives with others. But these gatherings are just not the right course of action during this critical time.
Perhaps giving thanks this year should be about finding that accountability within us for the greater good. Being grateful for the health we have, the health care providers dedicated to the cause, and to spend a moment reflecting on the lost lives of the 1.4 million souls (and counting) on our planet who passed this year due to COVID-19.
Perhaps we should be thankful that we are able to feel disappointed or frustrated at not having a big festive social meal. And we should consider all the families around the world who are in mourning at this time, with empty chairs at their dinner tables, before we complain or throw caution to the wind and gather.
The last meal I shared with my sweet aunt was a meal including all of the traditional dishes of Thanksgiving. It was late summer, and she knew she was about to pass. At her request, her friends and family sat down together one last time for a traditional Thanksgiving, knowing that it would likely be her final meal. It was more than bittersweet — it was steeped in love and we were immensely grateful to be able to spend those waning hours together.
Having that chance to hold her, feel her presence and say our goodbyes was priceless. We should consider the implications of our humanity this holiday season and hold on to what we love most.
This year, that means keeping our distance and celebrating in our hearts while doing our part to prevent spreading this lonely disease — so that one day, we can safely hold our loved ones close again.
If we are so lucky, we will be able to be with them when the time comes to say goodbye.
Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind. After all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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