Stained Glass by Tiffany and La Farge

Earlier today I paged through the weekly planner I use to track my monthly goals, and it was sobering to see a week-by-week account of the various stresses I’ve withstood this past year: the day we put Bobbi to sleep in April; the various hospitalizations, rehab appointments, and medical setbacks that culminated in Toivo’s death in July; and my Dad’s passing in September.

The Pool at Bethesda

With each of these losses came a grief that was necessarily compartmentalized: with other obligations to tend to, I haven’t had the luxury of lengthy mourning. Unable to find the time to fall apart, I’ve simply had to soldier on, each loss layering over the previous.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day we are told to count our blessings, an endeavor I full-heartedly support. And yet, I sometimes bridle against the performative nature of Thanksgiving, as if giving thanks counts only if you do it in a festive and properly public way. Although I have no problem with giving thanks, the mass-marketed version of Thanksgiving portrayed in both conventional and social media gives me pause, as it reflects a quintessentially American optimism that papers over more painful experiences with a veneer of positivity.

La Farge stained glass

I’m happy if you indeed are “blessed not stressed,” but in all honesty, some of us are both blessed and stressed in equal measures, and I don’t think there should be any shame in counting one’s losses alongside one’s blessings. If we count only our blessings, we acknowledge only the bright side, not the accompanying shadow, and I don’t believe you can have one without the other.

When we count our losses, we acknowledge too our lessons. As much as I wish I’d had the complete catharsis of allowing myself to fall to pieces on any given day this year, soldiering on has taught me something not only about myself, but about the nature of grief itself. They say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but to experiences that gain, you have to open yourself up to the accompanying pain.

Tiffany glass

I think a superficial counting of blessings can be misleading and even harmful: a kind of self-censorship where we allow others (and ourselves) to see only our polished and perfect side: something I might call the Instagram-ification of our inner lives, where every experience is rendered through a rose-colored filter. If I share only my happy and picture-perfect moments, I lie to both myself and others, and my gratitude can veer painfully close a boastful form of one-upmanship.

Ultimately, I worry that the counting of blessings alone is a kind of betrayal to the ones we’ve lost. If we can’t acknowledge the pain of loss, how can we feel the depth of love? Our societal rush to Get Over any emotion that isn’t purely positive is the worst kind of superficiality. If we are comfortable sharing happiness but not pain, our interactions will be emotionally amputated: only happy, never sad.

Louis C. Tiffany's Angel of Resurrection

I am grateful for my blessings, but I am grateful, too, for the painful lessons of impermanence, mortality, and grief, as well as the love that preceded them. Perhaps Thanksgiving makes sense only when coupled with that other November holiday, the Day of the Dead. Our blessings shine more brightly when we remember the darkness that dwells alongside them.