Call to Thanksgrieving

By Gillian Shelley

It’s time that we reimagine a Thanksgiving tradition that addresses the karmic laundry list of healing that’s needed in America. This is an invitation to sit at the table of Thanksgrieving. 

While many folks celebrate the myth of the Pilgrim’s generosity to the Indigenous peoples who call this beautiful land home, I am personally feeling torn. Everything I’ve learned about Thanksgiving is incorrect. And now that I know the truth, I can’t go along with the lie. So, do I continue the tradition I inherited and gather safely with loved ones to share a meal, or do I fast in silence to support the National Day of Mourning, named by the United American Indians of New England? Is there yet an unknown third path?

I am questioning, some might say even stewing, as a white, European settler heritage person — on how I might honor truth on “Thanksgiving.” Even the term "Thanksgiving" is culturally appropriated from the "Thanksgiving Address," a vital oral tradition shared by Indigenous peoples all around the world. Yet this particular word is also very connected to the 6-nation confederacy of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples. For the Haudenosaunee, these words are traditionally said at the beginning of every gathering to honor the intricate web of life that supports human thriving. 

In the intended spirit of this holiday, my spirit feels deep gratitude — most of all for the health of my loved ones, of which we are reminded this year especially, is never a given. I am grateful for a negative COVID test so I can spend time with my chosen family. I praise the heart of life for this wild uncertainty of being alive and sharing the earth with hummingbirds, poetry, valuable work, laughter and singing, thunder and rain, seafoam, human relationships, and fire. 

Yet, as many wise ones say, the second face of genuine praise is true grief. Martín Prechtel said that “Grief is praising what you’ve lost, and praise is grieving what you have.” I think we can all understand how grief is praising what you’ve lost. But how is praise grieving what you have if you have it?

Well, the truth is that you never really “have” anything. When you are present in praise, you understand that what you love is changing at this very moment. It’s already different than before. Every sunrise, word, meal, kiss, breath is wholly unique and precious. Any one of these could be your last. Praising means you are willing to be vulnerable enough to love in the moment without control. So there is a grief in truly praising that which you love, knowing that it will one day disappear, and so will you. 

We can think of the two — praise and grief — as twins separated at birth. It is the human gift and burden to weave them together. I believe that if praise belongs to the territory of the spirit, then it is grief that belongs to the soul. It is grief that remembers every detail and tethers us to the earth, our history, and our healing path.

With the threat of COVID shadowing every warm embrace, I imagine that my experience of this Thanksgiving is closer to the “original” than ever before in the 400 years since the Mayflower, including my ancestor, landed on Plymouth Rock, the impetus for the Indigenous peoples of this land to die from virus and systemic violence, flooded with fear and trespass. 

This year alone, over 1.42 million people have died of COVID globally, many whose lives weren’t able to be praised adequately in their passing, given the barriers to travel. Many souls still need to be grieved to arrive at their final resting place. Grief creates the bridge between this world and the next to bring passed souls home. During the European settler massacre, the Indigenous peoples were often forbidden to gather and mourn the loss of their loved ones, languages, land, and way of life. These hungry ghosts haunt the entire stolen “land of the free.”

I believe that the cultural fixation on “giving thanks” without the balance of “honoring grief” is a crisis of the soul. 

As a child, I learned to give thanks to be polite and get more of whatever it was that I wanted. I learned to be appreciative as a manipulation tactic that created distance between me and others rather than an act that created intimacy. If I liked something and wanted more of it, I would be sure to give thanks to whichever adult offered it. And in turn, adults did this to me, often only praising what they wanted to reinforce, not seeing or honoring my soul’s real journey. 

An example of this is that as a child, for one particular Thanksgiving, my cousin and I realized that with most of our family’s adults in one place, we could use the computer to print off all the pictures of things that we wanted for Christmas. We asked my mom to print without telling her what it was and handed out copies for each adult at dinner. We received laughter and kudos for our creative “business sense.” Every year since it gets mentioned at the table and embarrassment washes over me. Even consumer culture is more subtle than that!

At that moment, I enacted the hungry ghost of gratitude that my society enculturated in me. This is the culture that prioritizes permanence, whiteness, erasure, and forgetting when it’s convenient to do so in order to avoid making people feel uncomfortable and to continue economic and technological “progress.”

A significant focus of my transition from adolescence to adulthood is on claiming grief, facing the true stories of my European colonizer ancestry, and in doing so, digging into gratitude for the deep connection in my life that goes beyond any entitlement to immediate reward.

We Millennials have lived through significant disruption of many industrial sectors in our lifetime. Yet, I haven’t personally encountered a reimagining of Thanksgiving, particularly for those with settler and non-Native ancestry. I am a young person, not yet a parent, asking what inherited traumas and traditions I must release to live into new rituals and stories that serve life instead of severing it. 

What if we reimagined a national Thanksgiving that includes a practice of collective grieving and repair?

This is soul reclamation work. And we must do the work collectively. 

For support, I revisit a talk by Eve Ensler that changed my life in 2019. It’s titled The Alchemy of an Apology (warning: contains potentially triggering material).

Like my cousin who schemed to help me receive more Christmas presents, the sacred tool of an apology is a cousin to grief, which in turn moves you to praise with your whole soul. 

Americans, especially those with white and class privilege, are very unpracticed in the art of an apology. As I feel into an apology that I want to offer to the Indigenous Native Americans of this land, I notice that a number of dissociation and leaving strategies come up — distraction, spacing out, and a sudden desire for much more ice cream than usual. It’s uncomfortable. And that’s what affirms to me that the gateway to inhabit more of my soul will be found by crossing the river of grief.

Just keep going. Continue to return home to the dedication to truth while making space for the body’s experience. These stories of harm are unwinding in our tissues, muscles, and bones, not just our brains. 

Eve Ensler says that there are four stages to an apology, and all of them must be honored.

  • First, self-interrogation — the willingness to delve into the origins of our being, what made you a person who became capable of committing violence.
  • Second, detailed accounting — be specific about what has been violated. The liberation comes only through the details. 
  • Third, open your heart and allow yourself to feel what the victim felt as you were causing harm. What happened, or didn’t happen, in their life as a result? 
  • Fourth, take responsibility for your actions, make amends, and offer reparations as an ongoing process, demonstrating that you’ve been profoundly transformed.

Her framework for an apology is offered not as a prescription but as a map for liberation. Grief is inevitable in this process, and so is praise. When we tap into those infinite wells of feeling, we are connected to all of humanity, no matter which side of history we’re on.

In her talk, Ensler says, “What and why should one want to undergo such a grueling and emotional process? The answer is simple: freedom. No one who commits violence or suffering upon another, or the Earth, is free of that action. It contaminates one’s spirit and being, and without amends, often creates more darkness, depression, self-hatred, and violence. The apology frees the victim, but it also frees the perpetrator, allowing them deep reflection and ability to finally change their ways and their life.”

I believe that apologizing to this land’s Indigenous peoples is a first step towards liberating not just their pain, but all of us together.

So this year, I am gathering my loved ones over a meal with the invitation to practice a complete apology. We will explore what we can offer in the way of an apology. It doesn’t need to be perfect; we only need to start with curiosity and the intention to be honest with ourselves. We’ll learn the details of names, dates, and events of colonization in this land and in our own ancestry. While it will never take away the harm that has happened, it can help us touch the place within that aches for connection and healing — and reclaim the wholeness of our souls.

If all peoples who appear to benefit from colonization and Indigenous genocide followed this apology process, the United States would begin a slow but steady journey of reconciliation and making amends with Indigenous peoples and others who suffer from systems of oppression. Even those who seem to benefit from colonization are unwittingly perpetuating the systemic collapse which threatens their lives and the delicate balance of all life on earth. 

So we learn and grieve how we and our ancestors may be perpetrators in the horrific harm done to people and to the land. We grieve what made it possible for us to cause so much harm. We feel the impact in our own bodies and understand why we have to make different choices. This the only way to create true transformation that can mend even the most tragic of losses.

We can then fully praise this gift of aliveness. This is a call to lean into the Thanksgrieving — and move with the discomfort instead of against it.

I asked a dear friend who introduced me to the term “Thanksgrieving” how it originated. I learned that Sheikh Dr. Ibrahim Farajaje Baba, a Sufi Jewish teacher who passed in February 2016, held a yearly Thanksgrieving event in Oakland, California. May we bless their lives and all the beauty walkers who have left us keys and maps to navigate collective freedom. 

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Now it’s time for us to honor their labor and lay a foundation so emerging generations can birth a beautiful new world. 

Gillian Shelley is a Course Manager for The Shift Network.

Catalyst is produced by The Shift Network to feature inspiring stories and provide information to help shift consciousness and take practical action. To receive Catalyst twice a month, sign up here.

This article appears in: 2020 Catalyst, Issue 25: Enneagram Global Summit