An Open Letter to Messengers of Estranged Relatives (As seen on Elephant Journal)

Becoming estranged from a relative is a sad and difficult decision, one that is usually made with grave consideration and based on the belief that the emotional cost of continuing contact is simply too great to bear. Most of us wish we there was another choice we could make, especially when the family members are our own parents.

Yet, there are probably far more of us in this situation than people realize. We tend not to talk about our estrangements much. Naturally, we hope to avoid the general awkwardness and potential judgment of others. Perhaps there is a dark side to our families that we would prefer to keep private.

This painful state of affairs is often made worse when, out of the blue, an estranged family member sends a messenger to try and change our minds. These messengers may be truly well-intentioned. They might feel the need to defend the relative after hearing their side of the story. Sadly, they are sometimes nosy and judgmental. Their attitude and approach matters, of course, but reaching out on another’s behalf this way is generally a risky move.

If you are one of these messengers, if you feel the desire to try and help mend a family estrangement, there are factors I would ask you to please consider on behalf of the “estrangers”.

I realize you probably have good intentions and don’t like to see people feeling lonely or rejected. You might think it’s a good idea to share your unsolicited thoughts because you believe your point of view is valuable. You figure there’s a good chance that once we hear your reasons and the stories of your own relationship losses, we will see things differently, realize that we are hurting our relatives, and see things from their point-of-view. We might finally decide to forgive, forget, and work things out with this person. Then everyone will be better off and you will have the satisfaction of knowing you helped make the family whole again. I am going to assume, for now, that your motives are pure and not self-serving. In which case, I appreciate that you care.

However, messenger, there are several key factors I ask you to consider.

Please be careful before offering opinions about how others choose to deal with the most tender, painful and traumatic aspects of their lives. Be assured that, like their relatives, the estrangers also feel the depth of this loss and all its effects.

Please consider that you cannot possibly know the full story. When telling their side, it is highly likely there are important elements the relative might have left out, failed to realize, or “forgotten”. This creates a significant gap in your knowledge and ability to understand the situation.

Let me try to help you understand.

For years, I tried every possible way I could to make things work, even just well enough to be bearable, and keep the estranged relative in my life. I explained, argued, beseeched and listened. I cried and pleaded for understanding. I reevaluated our relationship and made an honest effort to accept aspects that would clearly never change. I appreciated the good in my relative and tried to overlook the bad. I settled for barely tolerable.

Eventually, I grasped that this relative would never stop acting in ways that hurt me on the deepest level. Even though I stipulate that people are complicated and this person is not unworthy of love or forgiveness, there is only so much devastating behavior a person can and should endure. At some point, it was clear that in order to be loved by this person, I would have to sacrifice my own emotional well-being. And you need to know this, messenger: I will never make that trade.

In the aftermath of this turmoil and while I was still grieving the loss of my relative, several of their confidants reached out to me and offered their opinions. They told me how sad my relative felt, how they had lost family members through death and missed them dearly, how important it is to forgive and release myself from holding onto a grudge. Because they had no idea what I had been through or how long and hard I had tried, their words only made me feel more misunderstood and alone.

Please consider the danger in believing that the estranger can be enlightened somehow by your point of view or the life experiences you wish to share. In fact, you would be wise to consider the possibility that we are not un-enlightened after all, that we have addressed this situation far more thoroughly than you realize, that our hearts are also sore and grieving, and that we alone understand what we have been through, what we are up against, and what is best for us. Do not assume that the choice of estrangement is without empathy or forgiveness.

While I appreciate that you care enough to consider taking action to ease our suffering, there is a good chance that your interference will do more harm than good. We make our choices with conscious intention and we deserve respect and benefit of the doubt. For we have come to realize that it is far better to lose a destructive relationship than to stay in it and lose ourselves.

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Coveting the Car Pool Lane

As I drove up the ramp and gradually merged onto the highway heading home, I felt the first pangs of sadness that I had been trying to stave off all afternoon. The emergence of these feelings was no surprise, but I hoped that this time I might be spared the melancholy that sets in each time I drop my daughter back off at college.
Summer was over and this daughter of mine, the oldest and most independent of my three children, was happy to be back at the school she loves and ready to begin her junior year. I knew I would miss her a lot, but that was okay. I was comforted by the knowledge that she is happy and in her element at school: busy, intellectually challenged and part of a close community of friends.

The familiar gloom had more to do with echoes of my own youth, as well as questions about the years to come. Each autumn as a chill sets in and the school buses take up their rounds, my own memories surface. I am reminded of the underlying loneliness that often followed me through my teenage years and peaked during college. Even though I had many good friends and was usually in a relationship, I always felt that something was missing.

I wanted a home and a family. Ever since I was a child playing with dolls, my fantasies for the future focused on marriage and motherhood, and I never grew out of the longing for both. As the youngest child in a large family, I felt lost in a chaotic household. I yearned to nurture my own children in the kind of safe and comforting environment I never had.

While I look forward to this time with my husband and the freedom it will bring, the idea of life without kids in the house also depresses and scares me.

I met my future husband at the age of 21 and we married three years later. When he landed his first real job out of graduate school, we moved into an apartment in a quaint Connecticut town. I found a job nearby and we adopted a shelter dog named Katie who hiked the hilly woods with us on weekends. Each evening as Katie and I strolled the neighborhood after work, I looked longingly through the windows of the houses we passed, their interiors glowing and cozy by lamplight. I yearned to have a real home, too, to cook with my husband in our own kitchen and let Katie out to run and sniff in a big backyard that we mowed on weekends.

A year or two later, my dream began to take shape. We moved into a small antique home (not our wisest financial investment, by the way) in a picturesque, family-oriented town. Our house had a backyard with a babbling brook and there was a dairy farm at the end of our country road. Katie loved our new life and so did we. Happily, my lifelong yearning for motherhood became a reality when our first child arrived three years later. We were overjoyed.

Within a few years, we welcomed a son and another daughter and moved into a larger house across town. In the months that followed the birth of our third child, I remember feeling ridiculously happy and hardly able to fathom my good fortune. I was now the mother of three healthy, delightful children and married to a devoted husband and father. I had everything I’d ever wanted — and I knew it.

Raising our family over these last 20 years has been immeasurably rewarding and challenging: a messy, exhausting, glorious undertaking. It has also been a wonderful ride; the toughest, best and most rewarding adventure of my life.

Which is why, riding solo down the highway that afternoon, I felt a tugging sadness. It came from the thought that in three years, my youngest child would go off to college and leave her dad and me alone in the house. While I look forward to this time with my husband and the freedom it will bring, the idea of life without kids in the house also depresses and scares me. When I consider that I never felt complete until we brought these three uniquely wonderful people into the world, I fear that I will once again feel an emptiness once they are no longer part of our daily lives.

The reminder of my passenger-less car eroded the last of my reserves and the tears began to flow.

As I drove along in contemplation, I noticed a sign approaching that indicated the carpool lane, which would soon be approaching: “Two or more persons per vehicle,” it read, causing me to flinch a little. The reminder of my passenger-less car eroded the last of my reserves and the tears began to flow. I was already feeling nostalgic for the drive my daughter and I had made that morning, my big old mini van full of her clothes, books and linens. I had been glad to steer us into the HOV lane and glide along without the need to navigate traffic.

Now, that option was closed to me and I was forced to drive on the main road with everyone else. The carpool lane traveled alongside me at first, then curved off to the left and eventually stretched away, out of my peripheral vision. I took a breath and wiped my eyes. I willed myself to look toward my future with acceptance, and a belief in my own resilience. By the time I arrived home two hours later, I was getting there.

Walking through the door, I was welcomed by two excited dogs, a pair of sweet teenagers, and my husband — who hugged me while I wept quietly into his shoulder. He’s used to these tearful moments by now, and he knows how deep my attachment will always be to our children. While he respects the depth of my emotions, he is confident that we will be fine when the day finally comes and the last of our children leaves home.

We will miss our kids’ daily presence, but our ties to them are strong and permanent. Of course, they will still need us in varying degrees for many years and we will always be a family. When our youngest daughter goes to college, my husband and I will be busy with our careers, our friends, and a deeper focus on each other. I’m not fully comforted by this understanding yet, but I’m getting there. In so many ways, I am a different person than I was before motherhood: stronger, more mature and comfortable in my own skin. The truth is that I am not likely to feel lost ever again, especially with my husband joining me for the trip — and helping me qualify to drive in that darn carpool lane.

The Gift of Being A ‘Replacement’ Child

I grew up believing that I was a replacement child, for I was given life after another child lost his: a brother my family loved and missed, and whose absence cast an obvious shadow over my grieving mother’s heart. Nicky, her oldest son from another marriage had died suddenly at the age of ten, a year before I was conceived. As my mother explained, his unexpected death was the reason that my parents made the decision to have me, their one last child.

My parents’ marriage was a second one for both and together they formed a stepfamily made up of five spirited children. The arrangement was fraught with all the inherent challenges of blending recently divorced families and the turmoil of children whose lives had been dramatically rearranged. Partly in an effort to cement their new stepfamily, my parents soon had a baby boy of their own. With so many kids in the mix and money tight, he was to be their one and only child together.

Then tragedy struck when Nicky drowned in a pond during a family visit to the country. My mother was devastated. By her telling, it was my parents’ now one-year-old baby boy who saved her from sinking into the depths of fresh maternal grief. His smiling face and the immediacy of his needs were her main connection to the present. It was only logical that my parents chose to have one more baby to fill the hole in the family created by Nicky’s death. And so I was conceived.

My mother used to tell me this origin story as I was growing up, I suspect because she saw my role in our family as a gift and a source of joy, delivered in the aftermath of tragedy. But I was confused and guilt-ridden. Trying to make sense of this information, I figured out that because I was grateful to have been born, I must have been glad that Nicky had died.

Adding to this muddle, my mother seemed at a loss for ways to openly carry on her love for Nicky, or to honor his life. There had been no funeral or memorial service when he died. His cremains were buried on his paternal grandmother’s property, hours from where we lived, on land that was eventually sold off to strangers. There was no shared recognition of Nicky’s birthday or death date, nor did any bench, tree or scholarship fund bear his name. I could see the effort it took my mother to talk about her beloved son and I was acutely aware of the sadness in her voice when she said his name.

Trying to understand this dead boy with whom I shared an unusual connection, I looked closely at pictures of Nicky in family albums and framed on the wall above my mother’s bed. It scared me to think that a child’s life could leave so little mark upon the world aside from my mother’s quiet, piercing pain.

With few clues to help me understand who Nicky was, I yearned to learn more. In my egocentric child’s view, it was clear that I alone was left out of this part of our family’s history; me, the replacement child who owed Nicky for my life. Would he have liked me, I wondered? I think I hoped to be worthy of the life that my unknowable brother had inadvertently bestowed upon me.

I developed a preoccupation with death that gripped me with fear as I lay in bed at night. I imagined myself dead and gone, the world spinning on forever in the vast nothingness of space, no trace of my life or any meaning that it might have once held. I lay bathed in sweat and stricken with fear that when death inevitably came for me, I would be lost forever — just like Nicky.

As I grew older and developed an adult’s understanding of the difficult situation my parents faced, I slowly began to make peace with my relationship to Nicky. I surmised that my parents’ inability to include Nicky’s memory in our lives might have been partly due to an era in which death was less talked about, especially the tragic loss of a child. From what I understand and remember of life in the seventies, there were fewer avenues for family members to openly process their grief.

It does not have to be this way, as I learned firsthand in a heartbreaking turn of events that brought my story full circle. My husband, kids and I became close with a couple whose only child (at the time) had recently died under sudden and tragic circumstances. In the aftermath of their devastating loss, our new friends shared some of their grief with us. They told us about their beautiful daughter and accepted our attempts to offer comfort — which mostly just meant listening. We grew so close that we felt like family by the time they gave birth to a new baby, a couple of years later.

She is a delightful toddler now, and being close to their family has allowed me to see how the joy and innocence of new life can be a balm on the wounds of grieving parents. Of course, our friends will forever grieve their irreplaceable first daughter, which is why their ability to truly embrace their second child is so profound to witness. They do a beautiful job of parenting both their children: their deceased child’s photographs and artwork grace the walls of their home and they speak about her often, telling their daughter all about the big sister she never knew.

My own parents’ struggle to keep Nicky in our lives left me wondering where I fit in our family, and whether I ever really would. I know now that I was never a replacement for Nicky. One person cannot substitute for another and I do not believe that was ever my parents’ intent. Witnessing our friends’ ongoing love for both their daughters has helped me understand that Nicky and I each occupy distinct places in our family. Today, my connection with him feels more like a privilege than a burden. I have gratitude, admiration and compassion for my parents, and I feel blessed to have given them the opportunity to love another child. Our friends have helped me resolve my own story for they have shown me that when we summon the strength to embrace life anew with all its beautiful gifts and terrifying risks, a family’s love has no limits and no end.

I’m Giving My Children the Life I Never Had, and Allowing Them to Take It for Granted.

Published on http://www.triggerpointsanthology.comFebruary 17, 2016

I was going to be a savior of children. As a little girl, I dreamed of growing up and creating a safe haven for lonely orphans and foster kids, set on an idyllic farm in the country where pets and farm animals filled out my brood of dependents, and satisfied my aching desire to nurture.

There was a husband in my fantasy, too. He would patiently co-parent our children, biological and otherwise, and adore us all with a fierce, protective loyalty. Even then, I think I understood that I was pining for the chance to give other kids the kind of family environment that I yearned to live in myself.

Growing up as the youngest of six kids, I never felt safe at home. My blended family was a source of love and fun, but it was also chaotic, short on boundaries, and volatile. The trouble usually stemmed from my father’s frightening bipolar rages that transformed him into an angry creature, who lashed out with words and sometimes hands.

Just as unpredictable was the hostile behavior that might spill forth unchecked from my older siblings. Sexual boundaries were nebulous and confusing in our house, adding to my confusion and anxiety. My misery only increased when I was seven or eight years old. My older brother began sexually abusing me, a secret horror that continued for the next couple of years, and which I kept secret throughout my childhood.

Whenever possible, I escaped to my friends’ houses where I envied the kind of structured, consistent atmosphere that allowed me to feel relaxed. Always on my guard at home, I sought out sources of comfort.

With my dollhouse, I acted out the traditional family I desired and released the frustrations I normally had to hide. Under the soft warmth of my blankie, I felt comforted and secure. And in my daydreams, the promise of a future home and family brought the chance to create safety and protection for others, even if I would never know that kind of upbringing.

Today, I have three wonderful teenagers and a husband who’s a pretty close match to that ideal guy I once imagined. We live in a rural town where neighbors are kind and the crow of roosters is a common sound.

Of course, this is real life and not a fantasy. Our family has had its share of struggles and difficult times. Even so, the life we built is everything I once hoped for. While my husband and I never did foster or adopt, we have managed to create a nurturing, healthy family environment for our kids and ourselves. For all of this and more, I am incredibly grateful.

I am also aware that I need to allow my children to take all these gifts for granted.

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My resentment creeps in  at times when I consider that I was once desperate to live like they do — a cozy, warm house stocked with snacks, siblings whose main offenses are rudeness or cleaning out the chocolate stash, the comfort of appropriate boundaries, and most of all, the knowledge that their parents can be trusted.

The problem is that I am remembering my dream, not theirs. It isn’t fair to expect my children to walk around grateful every day for a way of life they have always known, a life that they – and all kids – deserve. While I won’t tolerate rudeness or entitlement, I keep in mind that they have their own legitimate struggles, and that includes having an imperfect family.

Their dad and I have made plenty of mistakes along the way, and we are still learning. For my part, I am an emotional person. Due to my background, normal family problems can sometimes feel like crises to me, which causes me to overreact. For this and other reasons like impatience and moodiness, I can be difficult to live with at times.

I also keep in mind that my children contend with the regular factors that make kids grumpy –teen hormones, academic and social pressures, and fatigue brought on by having to get up early for the high school bus. There is also the simple fact that they are deep in the process of learning how to live, love and work with others. Heck, we are all works in progress when it comes to understanding and expressing our emotions and getting along with our fellow human beings.

Part of adolescence involves sizing up one’s parents and deciding which qualities to emulate and which ones to reject. Though it might be nice if our kids were a little less vocal about the qualities they want to scrap, we owe it to them to respect their needs to individuate and forge their own paths (even when it’s tough not to take their criticisms personally). In fact, there is comfort in knowing that our kids feel safe enough to behave like normal, ungrateful teenagers.

The truth is, I know full well that my kids appreciate their home and family. I feel it in their spontaneous hugs and when we get the giggles together over our shared brand of humor. I observe their thoughtfulness when they eat the dinner I prepared without complaint, even if it’s not their favorite. On occasion, they openly voice their gratitude; like the day my teenage son told me “I really hit the jackpot with my parents.”

It helps to realize that creating a healthy family is a gift I gave myself, too. Correcting my past has helped me heal from my trauma. Through the support of my husband, therapists and close friends, I eventually learned how it feels to be safe, respected, and loved without condition.

Creating the opportunity to share these gifts with my children has, in a sense, set me free. That scared little girl grew up and found her real home and family. While I still have my issues (just ask my kids), I am genuinely happy today. I am also extra appreciative of my gifts because I know what it’s like to live without them.

For my kids though, home is just home. While it can feel to them like a safe haven, family life can also be annoying, unfair and at times feels impossible. Other days though, home might just be their favorite place in the world. In fact, now that I think about it, I feel all these ways about our home too — and that’s okay.

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Bio:  Miranda Pacchiana is a social worker and writer with a blog on the Huffington Post. She lives and works in western Connecticut with her family.

You Are Your Own Mommy

Browsing Mother’s Day cards in the grocery store last week, I found myself wondering how many moms actually live up to the idealized version that I repeatedly found myself reading about. “You sacrificed everything for me,” the calligraphy-lettered lines declared, along with sentimental statements about moms who taught their children the important lessons of life, loved them unconditionally, modeled morality — and appeared in my mind wearing aprons and holding steaming hot trays of gluten-free brownies, fresh from the oven (which they cleaned with only natural products).

I actually felt a little cheated for a second, until I told myself that this person doesn’t actually exist (and if she does, I’m not sure I’d want to hang out with her). Most moms are just doing the best we can with the resources we have, which includes both external circumstances and our individual capabilities to give our kids what they need.

I am lucky to have received unconditional love from my parents, which I am sure is one of the major reasons that I was eventually able to overcome hardships in my early life, including the mistakes made by my mom and dad. Today, my close relationships are healthy and mutually supportive. If I had not started life with the bedrock of knowledge that I deserved to be loved, this might not be the case. And for that I am truly grateful.

But there are limits to what our parents can provide. Many of us still seek their approval long into our adulthood and occasionally wish for the kind of relationships that Mother’s Day cards promise exist somewhere. It’s a futile exercise that seems ripe for disappointment all around.

We have a quote in our family that came from my youngest daughter, one of many lines uttered by our children over the years that made the annals of our collective memory. She was about 3 years old and I was goofing around with her one day, pretending to be upset about something when I whined in a childish voice: “I want my mommy.” Playing along with total commitment, my daughter cocked her head, smiled sweetly and responded, “You are your own mommy!” It was adorable. And of course her family members laughed affectionately at the innocence of her statement. I was her mom after all, so how could I need a mommy?

Over the next few days, the meaning of this sentence simmered with me, slowly deepening in flavor as I worked out the reason why my daughter’s words felt kind of profound. I flashed back to a therapy session from years earlier when I described a yearning for my mother’s understanding about something in particular. My therapist suggested that I attempt to release myself from frustration by letting go of this fruitless need. She told me that I could provide my own approval, especially because I already knew I was on the right track. Essentially, she told me that I could be my own mommy.

Sometimes I return to this idea when I feel the need for outside reassurance or encouragement. Our mothers are usually our first touchstone and it’s hard to outgrow the need to seek nurturing and approval from them. But becoming an adult sometimes means outgrowing this reflex — especially if these responses are hard to come by. I think it’s important that we each realize our strength and independence by learning to give ourselves the gift of a pat on the back and the reminder that we are strong, capable and worthy of love — no matter what our parents can or cannot provide. It’s a worthy goal and Lord knows I’m a work-in-progress. But each step closer makes Mother’s Day (and a lot of other days) a little easier and brighter.

Oh, and I decided to create my own Mother’s Day card for my mom this year.

When Survivors Speak Up, Why We Must Listen

When the newest issue of New York Magazine arrived in my mailbox last week, it didn’t take long for me to flip to the back page and peruse the “Approval Matrix,” their weekly ranking of timely facts and intriguing news tidbits. I usually find it a fun read, but not this time. In the quadrant, which assigned this high-profile story the status of “despicable,” was a photograph of Woody Allen holding a young Dylan Farrow and the words: “The crosscurrents of accusations from the Farrow-Allen households.”

I did a double take to make sure I read this right, appalled that the magazine was equating Dylan’s stated memories of sexual abuse by her adopted father with his dismissals of her statements as “ludicrous,” as well as his characterization of Mia Farrow as a vengeful, spurned wife who planted Dylan’s memories and lied to the court — none of which seem to be supported by the official records, the timeline of events, nor the opinions of objective players in the case.

I am truly disappointed that New York Magazine chose to publicly slam Dylan Farrow for telling her story. There is no convincing reason to believe that she is lying; therefore, she deserves the benefit of the doubt. Looking carefully at the facts, including the reporting of the highly regarded and credible Maureen Orth inVanity Fair, it is actually Woody Allen’s behavior that appears suspicious, if not sinister.

Meanwhile, Dylan Farrow has every right to speak up about the man who allegedly violated her trust and her body when she was a small child, as well as the personal hurt she feels when witnessing the hero worship of her father among his colleagues in Hollywood. This veneration of the man behind the work simply fails to factor in his dubious past, an all too common phenomenon in the entertainment world. Even if we reserve judgment on the sexual abuse allegations, let’s not overlook the fact that Woody Allen makes no apologies for his sexual relationship with a then 20-year-old Sun Yi Previn.

Marrying a woman 35 years his junior and barely out of adolescence is deserving of our collective raised eyebrows at the very least, as well as consideration of its relevance to his daughter’s claims.

This story gets a lot of attention, at least in part because it is about celebrities. But we must not lose sight of the fact that this subject matter is vitally important. Sexual abuse is a frighteningly pervasive and destructive problem. It impacts far too many people, and thrives in darkness and silence. Our children are vulnerable unless we are aware of this danger and become diligent about their protection (and sometimes, sadly, even then). Bringing incidents out in the open and naming perpetrators is the only way to prevent sexual abuse from proliferating unchecked. As responsible, caring citizens and guardians of our youth, we must err on the side of caution when making judgments about whom to trust. The emotional well-being of our culture depends on it.

As a social worker and someone who has been personally impacted by this issue, I know that coming forward is an essential aspect of the healing process. In order to achieve true mental health, survivors work to understand that the burden of shame, which infects the lives of victims and causes damaging effects, belongs solely to the perpetrators of abuse. Speaking up is an important step for survivors, but one that also creates vulnerability.

When survivors summon the courage to come forward and tell their stories, we owe it to them and ourselves to pay attention. Not every claim will be true and it is only right that we obtain the available information before making up our minds. But with so much to lose — including counter-accusations, widespread criticism and the hurtful non-reactions of others that Dylan describes (all of which are surprisingly common) — those who speak up deserve to be heard and respected. When survivors are doubted and attacked, the evil of sexual abuse is given quarter and its danger is increased.

Unfortunately, brave young women like Dylan make easy targets. She stands up against a man with a lifetime of professional accolades, wealth and fame. Having grown up watching Annie Hall, I know firsthand how Woody Allen’s movies hold a place in the heart and personal histories of so many, making him a darling in America and abroad. When we entertain the veracity of Dylan’s claims, it is difficult to accept the stain on the memories we have attached to the man and his movies.

But it’s nothing compared to the pain that I believe Dylan Farrow endured and bravely worked to heal from. I support not just Dylan, but all survivors who face the truth about sexual abuse and the insidious damage it inflicts on the psyche, who stand up to the twisted power inflicted by abusers and help shine a light on this issue.

Woody Allen’s behavior may truly be “despicable.” But Dylan Farrow deserves to be in New York Magazine‘s “brilliant” category for her courage, as well as the comfort and strength her words give to so many. I stand behind Dylan and I call on others to do the same, no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter. We can only make headway against the epidemic of sexual abuse when outspoken survivors are accorded the respect they deserve — and like Dylan Farrow, refuse to be silenced.

Sandy Hook: Finding Gratitude, Even in Grief

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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.