The concept of gratitude just doesn’t feel the same to me this year. Topping my thankful list, as always, are my family members and especially my kids. But this Thanksgiving, I find it a challenge to reconcile my good fortune with the heartbreak of all the parents whose children were taken from them last December in our town. I think also of the people I met this year who spend their time working for change on behalf of their slain or injured children. When I start to count my blessings, I see their stricken faces in my mind as they tell their tragic stories. And I struggle with the unfairness of this dreadful dichotomy: my greatest joy and their worst pain.
This is not a riddle that can be solved. There is no reason to point to, no tidy way to sort it out in my mind. Instead, I try to shift my focus to the good: the positive, persevering aspects of human nature that have continually inspired and taught me lessons over the course of this year.
The most prominent example comes from friends of our family whose only child was killed at Sandy Hook School. In the early days of their enormous grief, this warm couple welcomed us into their lives — sharing details about their artistic, smart, loving daughter with the shiniest of smiles, and describing their family as it was before we knew them. Our friends’ willingness to open their aching hearts to us is a gift that my family continues to treasure. And they have given us so much more than this.
Our friends have taught us that life doesn’t have to lose meaning and joy, even if the greatest of all losses befalls you. They are the best illustration I know of the notion that we gain strength by creating our own community; surrounding ourselves with people who enrich our lives and allow us to return the favor. They prove that it’s possible to rally again and again in order to move forward and avoid being overtaken by tremendous, life-altering pain. As they build a unique and promising foundation that bears their daughter’s name — with the aim of preventing violence through brain health research and fostering community — they teach us that out of tragedy, badly needed discoveries and substantive changes can be made for the better of us all. And they regularly show us that it’s okay to laugh through the tears. In fact, it’s a necessary part of healing.
In keeping with these remarkable connections, I give thanks that my experience of community since the shooting has been largely positive, and that I’ve seen the best come out of people in a myriad of ways. When I scroll through my phone, more than half of the names I see are people I didn’t know a year ago, and each one of them has brought something of value to my life. This is true, in part, because we’ve become closer as a town. Since last year, what once would have been just a casual wave between acquaintances now frequently becomes an invitation to connect more deeply and form relationships out of our shared experiences and feelings.
As I think about gratitude this Thanksgiving, I will make a conscious effort to appreciate my loved ones as I’ve done every year, with some additions. I will let my thoughts turn to friends, neighbors and all of those who are hurting and impacted by grave loss. I will consider the strength and trust that so many of them have shown. As I go down my list of blessings, I will make sure to count my many new friends, as well as the rich lessons they provide the rest of us. And I will be truly thankful.
To learn about the Avielle Foundation, visit www.aviellefoundation.org.