On Thanksgiving Day in 2006, my son died. He was exactly 5 weeks and 6 days old. He would've been 13 this year.
For so long, I have lived with the feelings of shame and guilt that accompanies the death of a child. He died of SIDS, but I should have been there. I should have done something, even if there was nothing that I could have done.
On a day where I should be thankful for family, I mourned the incompleteness of mine.
Back then, I wasn't filled with gratitude, I was filled with sorrow. Even with the two daughters I would be blessed with afterwards, on those days, it was hardest to find a reason to celebrate the day that symbolized the worst day of my life.
The idea of moving forward with my life made me feel that I was somehow moving forward without my son. The guilt that attached itself to my heart is something that is hard to put into words. Although I know where he has been this whole time (in a grave in Richmond, Virginia) while I'm in Arizona, from a spiritual and emotional level, I still feel as raw as I did the day he died. The first Thanksgiving I didn't have turkey. There was nothing but 24 hours straight of crying. The idea that I was a childless mother and the emptiness that accompanied it weighed so heavy on me. All of these things I still feel, 13 years later, as if they happened yesterday.
For years, I'd treat Thanksgiving as a day off but wouldn't do anything. I'd volunteer to work. And if that wasn't an option, I'd just stay home. I wouldn't accept invitations to go to gatherings – I wouldn't leave the house at all. There were years I was basically forced to go somewhere and I'd oblige, begrudgingly, but would make a point not to enjoy myself in any way.
I felt, to celebrate in any way would be a betrayal of his memory.
How could I be happy when my only son wasn't here with me anymore? And, on the day that he left? The shame I felt was quick to anchor me to a place of darkness where light couldn't reach me. The depression would settle in like a storm and I'd inevitably break down.
Every year, friends and family would remember my pain before sitting down to eat their dinners. Some would commemorate him by would commenting on my annual tribute to him online while others would make their own. Everyone remembered the cocoa skinned baby with almond eyes and a wide smile even as young as he was. And we all wished we could have watched him grow up, an answered prayer, a dream come true…instead of a dream shattered.
It has taken me years to get to this point - where I could really feel the gratitude for this season and for this day.
Now, I can actually say I'm looking forward to spending time with my friends and family on this day. Maybe because it'll be the first Thanksgiving since this happened where my mother, who has stage 4 cancer, will be present. Maybe because this is coming up on the first year since my marriage to his father, which became exponentially worse when our son died, ended. Maybe because this is my 35th year around the sun and God has just given me the strength and wisdom to look beyond my pain and see my blessings.
The path to gratitude started with…I'm here.
Everyday is another opportunity for me to live for my son and my daughters. I believe that the pain of losing him is the fuel for the fire that I needed to be the woman I was meant to be. For them. For myself. For this world.
It is undeniable that I will feel this for the rest of my life – a hole in my heart where he resides. It is also undeniable that every year I sit down to pray and eat, I will have him on my heart and mind, wishing he was there to pass me the macaroni and cheese, or give me a hug and tell me he loves me. But I am filled with gratitude today for the time I had with him.
I am filled with gratitude for the girls I was blessed with. I am grateful for this life, in all its pain and glories, and I am here to tell my story for others who cannot.
Gratitude is not instant or easy but once it's there, that is where it will be.
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Originally published November 22, 2018