By David Wall, bereaved father of Floriane

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November.

It’s one of the best American holidays, usually celebrated with a family meal (by tradition with turkey as the main course). There’s no gift-giving aspect to it, so the consumerism that has contaminated many American celebrations is mostly absent. It is not particularly child-centric.

Red Nose asked me to write about Thanksgiving and how its celebration — our partly-American family has always made a point of celebrating it here in Australia — is affected by the shadow of loss and grief.

Our Thanksgiving table, these days, has a glass butterfly standing in for my daughter, Floriane, who died four years ago, age nine, due to an undiagnosed heart defect. I thought it would be good to think about how Thanksgiving, an occasion for the expression of gratitude and the contemplation of good fortune, fits in with the shadows of loss and grief. As it happens, I found in researching this article that Thanksgiving has always been tied up with tragedy.

Thanksgiving began as a celebration of the completion of the harvest in colonial times and later made an official federal holiday near the end of the American Civil War.

In his proclamation of the holiday in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln specifically called for all Americans — including “those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands,” by the way — to count their blessings at the end of November. He knew his country, at the time, wasn’t feeling altogether blessed, still split in two and engaged as it was in a massive internal conflict that would ultimately result in something like 620,000 military deaths alone, to say nothing of injuries and the toll on the civilian population. An equivalent conflict today, adjusted for population growth, would see on the order of eight million soldiers dead. It was carnage and misery on a titanic scale. Lincoln instituted the holiday regardless.

Lincoln knew something about darkness. By nature moody and melancholic to begin with, he had buried two of his sons by the time he issued the Thanksgiving proclamation. Eddie Lincoln had died, age three, probably due to tuberculosis, in 1850. Willie Lincoln had died of typhoid, age 11, less than two years before in 1862. Lincoln would not experience the death of his fourth son, Tad, at age 18, but only because he himself was assassinated first. Again: The darkness ran deep with this President.

In his Thanksgiving proclamation, Lincoln called for the country to contemplate, “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” in the war. He saw the darkness and called for a holiday that celebrated the contrasting light anyway.

A hundred years later, President John Kennedy wrote of Thanksgiving in a proclamation issued in early November, 1963, that, “our forefathers…gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and for the faith which united them with their God.”

Kennedy, who didn’t live to see Thanksgiving later that month (and whose son would ultimately die prematurely in a light airplane crash), didn’t have anything to say about those of us with at least one child who is short of health.

I think, perhaps, that recognition of good fortune is only possible with the simultaneous acknowledgement of bad fortune — that one cannot fully appreciate the good things in one’s life without contrasting them to the bad things. Lincoln knew this, certainly.

While I miss Floriane terribly — her absence is a constant weight on my existence — I am grateful for the time I had with her, and for the good influence she had on me, my family, and the world in general. I am grateful for everything else that is good in my life, which includes my family, with all of its members, living and not. The glass butterfly at the Thanksgiving table is grotesque, in that it wouldn’t be there if tragedy had not struck, but it helps us think about love, past and present, and for that we are grateful.

Red Nose Grief and Loss provides free, specialised support for anybody impacted by the death of a child. Call our 24/7 Support Line on 1300 308 307

Last reviewed: 28/9/20