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The Confluence of Grief and Gratitude

“Celebrating” Thanksgiving After the Loss of a Loved One

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Each Thanksgiving season since the death of my son four years ago, I have written about “the chair.” The chair in question is my 28-year-old son Jonny’s chair, a simple, modest chair that had not owned any piece of my energy prior to my son’s death, but a chair that consumed my thoughts as Thanksgiving approached months after his death.

Chris, Katie, and I hosted Thanksgiving that year, and we invited a few friends and family members to celebrate with us. The word celebrate, though, did not resonate. How could we simultaneously grieve and give thanks?

I could not wrap my head around the answer to the question of who would sit in Jonny’s chair. Would someone sit in my dead son’s chair, or would it sit empty, a loud vacancy reminding us that someone was missing? Would we give thanks, or would we grieve?

***

This chair is on my mind again this year, but for a different reason. Not even a month ago, on November 4, my partner, Greg Synder, died, leaving yet another vacant chair at yet another dinner table.

This will be my first Thanksgiving without Greg—my first in a world that exists without Greg.

Greg and I did not celebrate every Thanksgiving in each other’s homes, but there was never a Thanksgiving that went by in the past 35 years that I did not say a thank you to the universe for giving me Greg as a partner.

Four years ago, on that first Thanksgiving without Jonny, as I obsessed over his chair, I still had Greg. His wife still had Greg. Matt, Haley, and Nick, his children, still had Greg.

I took Greg’s life as a given. Even while sitting in the grief of my own child’s shocking death, I did not consider that I might be sitting here, four years down the road, grieving the death of another loved one.

Yet, here I am. This year, we don’t have Greg.

***

Greg joined my accounting firm in 1976. He was the stepson of my then-partner, Mary, and when Mary retired in the mid eighties, Greg took her position. For well over three decades, Greg was my partner, a constant fixture in my days.

We were a fun firm when Greg and I went it alone. We became a great firm in 1991 when Jake Jacobs joined our team. Greg, Jake, and I took tremendous joy in hiring employees and in serving our clients. We shared the pain of losing employees, and of the occasional downsizing required as our firm hit its bumps over the years. We went on fishing trips to Montana, smoked cigars, and we laughed.

When my son died four years ago, Greg’s wife, Rebecca, who is also a partner at our firm, was the first to arrive at my home to comfort my own wife. She arrived within ten minutes of hearing the news of Jonny’s passing.

Rebecca was our angel.

And so was Greg. He sat beside me weeks later on our annual fishing trip to Montana as I wept. And for years, he was in quiet solidarity of my own grief as it traveled, ebbed, flowed, and crashed.

From the time I met him up until his death in early November, Greg and I never had an argument. The secret was that we let each other be who we needed to be.

We changed over the years, at times growing in different directions. I was and always will be “attracted to shiny things.” Those were Greg’s words, spoken fondly when describing my nearly unquenchable need for knowledge. It is true that I have, at times, had my attention pulled toward some promise of knowledge that I will never put to use.

With each growing pain, we trusted in the process. As accountants, we followed the advice we gave our clients: Plan, plan, plan. Control what you can control. And then stand at attention, ready to readjust, knowing that life often has its own plan.

***

We knew in December of 2018, when Greg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, that his prognosis was not favorable. He had the best—the best doctors, the best treatment, the best support in the form of an angel who goes by Rebecca.

The best-laid plans.

Greg’s ex-wife, Amy, carried the load, as did Matt, Haley, and Nick. With Rebecca and Greg fighting for his life, the other partners dug in to support Greg and our firm. They were determined not to let Greg down—resolute in their energy for supporting the clients who depended on Greg.

We felt his absence then, but if we needed, he was a phone call away, even at his worst. With both Greg and Rebecca fighting Greg’s malady, the firm was different, but we still had Greg.

***

Greg died on November 4, 2019.

Greg had been Greg up until the very end. For certain, his constitution was weaker, but he kept his sense of humor and his intangible Gregness. He fought until the end, but he knew that it would be what it would be.

He let go of life the same way he lived it: Never displaying anger about his condition, in gratitude for the life he had, treasuring the here and now, and letting it be what it needed to be.

Plan, plan, plan. Control what you can control. And then stand at attention, ready to readjust, knowing that life often has its own plan.

I felt prepared for his death, even at peace with it.  

But I wasn’t at all prepared, and I was foolish for thinking I was. I know from Jonny’s death that loss can seem enduring. How can you be prepared for such an extreme shift in conditions, when the dynamic and balance change in such a profound way that the circumstances of your joy can never again be captured?

My firm will never be the same. My circle of close friends is forever altered. Montana’s skies will not be quite as big without the camaraderie of Greg.

***

So here we are again, on the eve of another Thanksgiving. Jonny’s chair, Greg’s chair, there are so many empty chairs everywhere asking whether they should be filled or sit vacant. What do we do with all the empty chairs, all of the holes? How do we celebrate and grieve simultaneously? 

The choice is personal, but this is what I know: On that Thanksgiving four years ago, enveloped in the grief of the death of my son, I still had Greg. Greg occupied a chair.

I took his presence in this world for granted—thankful for him, certainly, but never truly appreciating the gift of his transient, intangible Gregness.  

And today, I am still a fortunate soul. I have much for which to be thankful, much that I do not treat as impermanent, but which certainly is. I miss my old friend. He leaves an empty chair in my life, but I stand at attention, ready to readjust, knowing that life often has its own plan.

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