Modified Gratitude

It’s November. Gratitude season. It’s also November: ten months after my dad died.

Holidays are painful this year. I don’t feel like celebrating a year that has been washed over with grief and pain, but I also don’t want to deprive myself of the traditions that bring me comfort and joy. I’m still deciding what to keep and what to skip.

Every November for the past 5 years, I’ve made a “Grateful Jar” and filled it with lists of things that I’m grateful for. Each one is a tiny time capsule. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a 2017 jar, but I decided to make one that reflects my dad. I decorated it with photos of him and phrases that remind me of him like:

  • stay humble
  • listen more
  • let it be
  • be kind

I gathered paper and pens, but I didn’t pressure myself to write every day.

When I did write, I’d focus on experiences I’m grateful my dad and I got to have together. The good thing about gratitude is you can start small, and it snowballs. Sometimes I wouldn’t write anything for a week, and then I would write down one memory and that would remind me of another and another.

On Thanksgiving, I opened the jar and re-read each one. I was flooded with happy memories. It was such a special (read: emotional) way to start the day.

In addition to so many wonderful memories with my dad, I also wrote that I’m grateful for:

  1. My little nephew, Sebastian.
  2. Velveeta the cat (always)
  3. Bret for being such an incredible partner and making me French Press coffee in the morning, half marathon training with me even when it’s freezing outside, and for playing songs on his guitar when I’m sad.
  4. A wonderful therapist and an incredibly emphatic doctor who have helped me better understand and manage my traumatic grief and depression.
  5. Friends who made the long trip “up the mountain” to visit me in Boone this fall, friends who sent me thoughtful snail mail, and friends who continue to check in with me and talk with me even on those difficult days when I’m not myself.

I have a lot to be grateful for, but some days, I can’t see it. I feel helplessly sad. Or I feel angry. Or I feel numb. Because I wasn’t sure how I’d be feeling on Thanksgiving, Bret and I decided to stay in Boone. I missed being with my family, but staying home was peaceful and comforting: the two things I’m seeking most during this season. Bret did ALL of the grocery shopping and made mashed potatoes from scratch. I made Spinach Gratin for the first time which was really, really good (recipe here!) and we also made cranberry sauce and brussels sprouts and bought the most delectable yeast rolls made from scratch at Stick Boy Bread Co.

Side note: Looking at these pictures reminds me I’m grateful for Stick Boy and their delicious yeast rolls, cranberry apple pumpkin bread, and pecan pie, all of which graced our table this week. I think Stick Boy may be my favorite thing about Boone.

It’s difficult to find gratitude in the midst of grief, but sometimes, there is room for both. I can be painfully aware of my dad’s absence and I can be missing him, but I can also be thankful for the holidays that we had together in past years.

I hope you had a wonderful, peaceful Thanksgiving holiday. I’m hoping to create a holiday season that is as comfortable and manageable as possible. If you are looking for ways to support a friend or family member dealing with traumatic grief this year, here are some things to keep in mind.

Year 4: Life is short & love is forever

Four years ago, while writing my wedding vows, I imagined a future with Bret: traveling the world, writing books together, moving to new cities, and finding adventures. I probably thought about the hardships, too. I figured we’d support each other through challenging careers and hold each other up through life’s struggles, whatever they may be. Maybe in the back of my mind I considered a far distant future after our parents had the chance to retire, travel, and live full lives when we’d have to say goodbye to them, but I never imagined losing my father so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and so young.

My dad is on the forefront of my mind all the time. I miss him so much that it hurts, and this pain impacts every aspect of my life including my relationship with Bret. Bret has assured me, a hundred times, that I’m still me and we’re still us, and we’ll survive this and continue to honor my dad and have him be a part of our lives forever. And I believe that. But still. The ground under my feet is unsteady.

One of the questions in my daily journal is: are you craving adventure or stability? Every year, I write: ADVENTURE! But this time? Stability. Stability because I feel unsettled and unsure of everything I’ve ever believed to be true. Nothing feels real and I’m not my normal optimistic, joyful, or adaptable self. And I hate that.

One thing that doesn’t feel real or make sense right now is time. I know that it’s May, technically, but most of the time, I feel stuck in those early weeks of January, and then I forget what month it actually is. I almost forgot about our anniversary, for example. I remember looking at Bret sometime in early March and saying, “Our anniversary is next week” and it was just a passing thought.

We realized our anniversary was the same day that our car, Sparky, was scheduled for service so we just went together at 7am and enjoyed the complimentary Panera bagels and coffee that Subaru serves while you wait. Then, we had typical work days. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, but after we ate, we opened a couple sweet cards from friends and family. I tried to reflect on the past year like I usually do, but it felt surreal in a bad way. It felt wrong because those past 12 months were wonderful until they weren’t.

In Year 4 of marriage, we:

  • Explored Scotland, England and Wales with new friends
  • Visited Bret’s parents’ in their new Florida home
  • Spent time with my family in a town my dad had always wanted to visit
  • Watched the Olympics (Bret LOVES the Olympics)
  • Celebrated Bret’s birthday in Asheville with friends
  • Attended the first JMU football game of the season
  • Had friends & family visit us in Boone
  • Watched the Gilmore Girls revival together
  • Spent an amazing time in Disney with my in-laws
  • Enjoyed a wonderful Christmas with my family

…but then my dad died. It still doesn’t feel possible. And my heart hearts.

One of my friends described the experience of losing her father as a “crack in the universe” where there is a definitive ‘before’ and ‘after’ and I already feel that so much. It’s impossible not to.

Since January, while attempting to navigate this life that doesn’t make sense, I’ve leaned on Bret in ways I never wanted to. He’s been there through uncontrollable tears and panic attacks. He’s brought me food and water and tissues on demand. He’s let me be angry without being angry in return. He’s dropped everything to drive me to Richmond (a 10 hour round trip), or to watch a family home video (17 of them), or whatever I’ve needed. He helped me set up a shelf in our living room to honor my dad when I decided I needed that done immediately, for example. Just, anything. I’m sure I’d be doing the same things for him if our situations were reversed. This reality we’re living: it’s just something I never, ever anticipated.

At some point when Bret was consoling me for the third time in a single day (I’ve cried more in the past few months than I’ve cried in our whole relationship), and listening to my same difficult questions, I told him I felt bad because he didn’t sign up for this, and he just said something like, “Of course I did. Remember that whole marriage vow thing?” which made me cry more.

Days after our actual anniversary, I realized we hadn’t taken our annual photo. It was snowing outside so Bret suggested we just stand outside on the deck. We set up the tripod and wore our matching JMU sweat pants:

Taking this photo felt sad and forced – completely different from every year before. I’m glad we have it now, though, that I see it added it to the collection:


Year OneYear Two | Tallahassee, FL


Year Three & Year Four | Boone, NC

Usually this is where I’d say cheers to year five, but I don’t know what I want for this year. I feel guilty even acknowledging this anniversary, to be honest.

We do have one big thing planned: we’re traveling to Japan. Bret is teaching in China this summer and I’m going to fly over and meet him in Tokyo when he’s done. Part of me wants to stay here, tucked away safe at home, but I have been dreaming about visiting Japan for years, and my dad encouraged me to take this trip from the start and again whenever I shared any hesitation in going. So I’m going for him. And for me. And to try to scrap together any semblance of hope that life can still be an exciting adventure.

Some days that does feel like a distant possibility, other days it doesn’t. For now, I’m just going to stay grounded in the truth that has never felt so true: life is short and love is forever.

Grief is Love

The days and weeks and now months after losing my dad have been filled with pain and sadness. My head and heart physically ache. My emotions are inconsistent and unpredictable. Time keeps passing, but I don’t feel it. Is it 9am? 11pm? January? April? It all feels the same. It is difficult to describe: how I can see one of my dad’s belongings and fall into uncontrollable tears, how an unexpected phrase can cause a panic attack, or how I can forget, for a moment, and then feel intense heartache over the fact that my dad isn’t physically here. Nearly every morning, when I wake up, I feel a reset of tremendous pain as the reality sets in. It’s been unimaginably difficult.

My dad’s memorial service was a sharp contrast to all of that. It was incredibly comforting to be in the presence of so many people who love my dad. Through tear-filled eyes and sleepless nights, my sister and I had written a tribute to my dad to share with everyone. Before I spoke, I remember pausing and just gazing at the crowd. The balcony’s were full, and there were people standing in the aisles. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people paused their day to honor my dad, and that meant so much. You’d think it would have been difficult to stand up and talk through the grief, but I found strength and comfort in sharing these stories and I knew my dad was right there with us. I have been wanting to share an excerpt of what I read, and in time I probably will. Right now, all I want to share is one small thing I’ve learned in this horrible journey: grief is love.

As I’m re-evaluating everything in my life, I’m so grateful for my friends and family and my dad’s friends and colleagues who have reached out and who continue to reach out with cards full of happy memories of my dad and so much love and support. On my hardest days I re-read them. I love being reminded of the impact my dad had and continues to have on so many people. And I love knowing that I am not alone on this grief journey. It has made all the difference.