Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael’s College. She holds degrees in English and theology from St. Mike’s. This holiday, she is stopping herself from making too many pies.


Gratitude as Gift

Photograph of lilacs in a basket

This Thanksgiving, I choose to be grateful.

Gratitude may not be the first emotion that will come to mind for many of us this fall. If your holiday traditions include circling the dinner table with guests rhyming off the things for which they are thankful, you may have to dig a little deeper this year. I can’t think of a person I know who hasn’t been touched in some way by the pandemic, whether it’s by fears of job loss and economic instability, worries over the health and safety of loved ones, or a general sense of anxiety about the way forward to healthier, happier times.

For my family, this is our first Thanksgiving without my husband. Mike died the week prior to the pandemic lockdown, and we celebrated his life in Charbonnel Hall the day before the COVID restrictions began. Charbonnel seemed an ideal place for a memorial service because, although he wasn’t a St. Mike’s grad, he spent plenty of time on campus, first swinging by after work to pick me up in the COOP when I was an undergrad, then picking me up after classes when I returned to study theology, and finally re-arranging his drive home from the office to get me when I began working here five years ago.

At times, my family’s grief—both individual and collective—seems bottomless, our loss immeasurable. Heightening our mourning is the fact that we moved immediately from a celebration of life to a life of isolation, cutting us off from the ways in which people mark a death and find consolation. Yes, there were casseroles, but instead of inviting the consoling chef in for a visit, there would be a timid knock at the door and a wave from the driveway. There were mass cards, but no masses to attend. And as my children gradually returned to what passes for normal life these days, social distancing often cut us off from even the solace of each other’s company.

We do talk to each other, though—a great deal—and when we do we ponder the life of their father, our time together as a family during his illness, and, of course, happier times. It has been through these conversations that I am repeatedly reminded of the sacramental nature of gratitude.

To be grateful is to admit that our lives—and the people in them—are a gift. It is to acknowledge our own vulnerability and our deep need for connection. At its heart, gratitude signals an awareness of the grace that imbues our lives, allowing us to weather the most challenging of times and circumstances. It reminds us that this is not the end. Even in loss, we can acknowledge the richness of what we have received—and we can hope for the future.

Like so many other people this year, this will be a tough Thanksgiving for our family. Instead of adding an extra leaf to the table to accommodate the kids and their overflow crowds, I’ll be arranging only four settings, appropriately distanced. Two children will not be making it home for dinner this year. Mike’s spot will be empty.

But we will Zoom with extended family, and we will laugh, and we will tell stories. And through it all I will try to remain thankful—for the gift of a wonderful marriage to a great guy, and for our four children, who continue to remind me of Mike, whether by a facial expression, a turn of phrase, or by outrageously goofy behaviour.

When our oldest son was over recently to help me with some gardening, for example, he had one tree nearly felled before he realized he was cutting down my favourite lilac rather than the sizeable weeds that had sprung up from wandering maple keys.

Jake’s face showed his chagrin when he realized his mistake, his desire to help his mother having turned instead into something he worried would upset me. But suddenly his expression turned to one of amusement. “Hey,” he said, “didn’t Dad mow down your hydrangea the week after you planted it?”

When I confirmed the memory, Jake tilted his head and smiled. “Just like Dad!” he said. Yes, I thought, you certainly are. And so are your siblings.

This year, there will only be four places at our Thanksgiving table. Our lives are upended and not at all what we would have anticipated or asked for.

And in the midst of it all, I will choose to be grateful.