Giving Thanks for Imperfect Families


There are many occasions when I miss my mother…like when someone says something that I know would make her laugh with contagious abandonment and no one could possibly let the sound of her joyful eruption subside before feeling embraced by it. As I hike up the mountain where she taught me the names of wildflowers, I want to say to her, “Oh, look…a yellow lady slipper!” I want to share the moment when nature holds us in a bond thicker than blood.  I can still hear her breathing heavily on the steep path, determined to reach the outcropping of rocks where we could rest and view the mountains rising through a comforter of clouds from the valley below.

That’s what I don’t miss: The labored breathing, the laughter that suddenly snagged and launched a coughing fit, the smell of tobacco and beer, the face clenched with pain from wounds too deep for memory… the sure slide to death on decades of self-abuse.

When she died in April 1983, I was in my first year as a minister. Thirty years of helping people through loss have only confirmed what I learned that year: Grief isn’t just about losing someone you love; it is also about letting go of hopes for a better past. I learned that forgiveness is not cheap, and it may take years to free up a heart clogged with guilt or anger. I learned that most families are imperfect, and that love abides, even when corroded by jealousy, misunderstanding, or resentment.

As I sat with hundreds of grieving families over three decades, themes often emerged:  a divorce still bitter, a gay son rejected, siblings strained by the roles they took during Mom’s long illness, a daughter cut out of the will. Then there were the issues that came up at the time of death: a wife deciding on cremation for her husband without consulting her Catholic stepchildren, a hierarchy of seating at the funeral service or caravanning to the cemetery, a father blaming himself for the accidental death of his child. The list goes on.

 So when I wrote a book to help people create rituals of remembrance through the seasons of grief, I included a chapter called “Family Ties and Family Lies: When Your Family is Alienated.” Another chapter addresses issues that surface because of the circumstances of death.  A suicide or a murder, for example, calls for a different approach than death from a long illness. The death of a child is not the same as the death of an old person.

This year as I read through the book in preparation for publication of the second edition, I was reminded of one reason I wrote Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death. Family issues or circumstances of a death need to be acknowledged or addressed without taking center stage in a public setting. People who gather for a funeral or memorial service need to honor and celebrate the person who died while they also have opportunities to feel anger or guilt, invite forgiveness, let go of the past, and prepare to move ahead.

The final chapter of the book deals with expressing grief through a year of anniversaries and holidays. As we anticipate Thanksgiving, I think of this as a time to pause and remember those who are not gathered with us. It is a time to give thanks, not just for the abundance in our lives, but the gifts we receive from one another. This year my husband, Chuck, and I will host friends for dinner on Thursday. I will set the table with my mother’s Spode china and Chuck’s mom’s silver, and will buy spiced peaches because we always had them when I was growing up. Our friends will bring Aunt Fanny’s pumpkin chiffon pie and the traditional creamed onions that absolutely must be part of their meal. I will recall the year when our niece Amy became a vegetarian and could not bear to be in the same room with a dead bird, and the year the cat dragged the turkey off the counter. I will probably burn the rolls. As we savor our meal, we will all give thanks for imperfect holidays with our imperfect families…and yes, we will remember them well.

5 Responses so far.

  1. Linda says:

    You’ve still got it. Very lovely piece.

  2. so full of truths… thank you for sharing… One truth that resonated with me, especially since I just got off the phone with a woman who wants to sign up for my class “Writing Through Grief” —

    “Grief isn’t just about losing someone you love; it is also about letting go of hopes for a better past.” So very true when we lose someone with whom we’ve had a complicated relationship! I also think that grief is about getting to know who you are without that person– when my dad died, a person with whom I had a complicated relationship–I not only had to work on forgiveness, letting go of what might have been, I had to reconsider who I was–no longer a daughter. As Judith Butler writes in Precarious Life, “When we lose certain people… I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself.”

  3. Patricia Dennis says:

    As always, Spirit brings me something to ponder as I’ve felt down about the past and those I’ve lost. At one time I lost 7 family members in 5 years. It was a difficult time. My prayer was, “You’ve backed me into a corner and I can’t take any more I’ve had a respite for awhile as my demand to the universe was filled. Your words give me a comfort. Thanks once again. You are truly special.

  4. Carol Pearson says:

    Thank you for reminding me to be thankful for my imperfect family! The creamed onions brought back my mother so perfectly. We had them every year (along with corn and oysters) for as long as I could remember. After my granfather died at 97, Mom quit cooking the corn and oysters because they were for Grandpa. She continued with the creamed onions until Alzheimer’s robbed her of her memory of the recipe!! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving with love from both of us. Carol and Rick

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