11/22/2012 05:37 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2013

Learning to Be Thankful For A Less-Than-Perfect Life

I pulled out a chair and sat down at the dining room table in my childhood home, dreading what I knew was about to happen next.

Nothing about the scene would have looked foreboding to an outsider. The table, set with my mom's best wedding china and silver, was piled with all the traditional fixings of a Thanksgiving feast, and I was surrounded by people I loved: my parents, both of my grandmothers and my best friend and her husband.

No, it wasn't the food or conversation I was dreading, but a particular Thanksgiving tradition: going around the table and each taking a turn to share what we're thankful for.

I was dreading it because I wasn't feeling very thankful for anything.

It was the first Thanksgiving after my ex and I separated and our two young daughters were traveling with him to visit his family. At that moment in my life, nothing felt right. Not only had I been in flux over what to do about Thanksgiving -- I didn't want to stay away from my family, but I also didn't want to be there without my kids -- I was in flux about everything.

Waking up in the morning and thinking, "This is my life? How did I get here?" had become a regular occurrence. I was living somewhere I had never dreamed of living, I wasn't as financially secure as I thought I'd be by 32 and I had definitely never imagined that I would get a divorce. I felt like I was living someone else's life, like I was moving several spaces backwards in the Game of Life when I imagined I would be taking leaps ahead.

So as I sat there at Thanksgiving dinner as a single mom who didn't even have her kids by her side, it was hard to think of the good things in my life. Sure, I knew in my head that I had a lot to be thankful for, including all the usual things people say, like health and food and a roof over my head. I knew it, but I wasn't feeling it.

It's no secret that the holidays can be a stressful and emotional time for lots of people. For anyone who's recently experienced some type of loss, like a death or divorce, the stress and emotions are amplified.

And if you're divorced and have kids, sometimes it feels like there's no way you can win this time of year. Either you're missing your kids because they're spending the holiday with your ex, or you have your kids and are busy trying to be jolly and organized and generally "on" as a single parent. Whether you're traveling or just trying to uphold -- or establish -- family traditions, doing it solo is never easy.

Most of us in these circumstances are quick to acknowledge the particular challenges related to holiday schedules and logistics. But the emotional challenges? We'd rather pretend they don't exist. They do, though, and they become more dangerous than ever when they collide with unrealistic holiday expectations -- ours or those of others.

So if it isn't healthy to fake how we feel and it isn't healthy to wallow in it, what's left?

Ironically, the practice that helped me break this cycle of pretending and wallowing was the same one I was dreading that first post-divorce Thanksgiving: gratitude. And while Thanksgiving might be a difficult time, maybe it can actually lay the groundwork for the acceptance, healing and hope we need if we're going to move forward. Maybe it's when feeling thankful is hardest that we need it most.

Don't get me wrong -- I didn't just magically become grateful that Thanksgiving a decade ago. Often, when you're in a difficult phase of life, the minute you try to focus on what you're thankful for all the things you're angry and unhappy about show up instead. And they tend to be loud; they get right up in your face, blocking your view of those positive sights that are more distant and vague. Anger and resentment are obnoxious and relentless in that way. In my case, it took some time, healing and a strong desire to usher a turning point into my life before I could be thankful for this life I hadn't wanted.

In the months following my divorce, I went to many counseling sessions. Many. They were definitely helpful, but only to a point. Eventually, I reached a place where I just wasn't interested, any more, in looking back. The thought of continuing to analyze and pick apart each hurt, each difficult memory, left me feeling exhausted, like a heavy weight was constantly pressing down on me. When I described this feeling to a pastor at the church I had just started attending, he suggested that I focus on gratitude for a while.

I'll admit, I was dubious, but I agreed to start keeping track of the many small things in my life that I was thankful for. I was also dubious about a book he gave me -- A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, by a Benedictine Sister named Macrina Wiederkehr -- but when I read it, I was struck by a metaphor she uses. Often, she writes, we go through life hoping we'll find the prize -- the whole, perfect loaf of bread. But while we're focusing so intently on that goal, we're missing all the crumbs, walking right by them. If we would just gather those crumbs, they would add up to a full loaf before long and feed us in the same way.

I began trying to see and appreciate all the crumbs in my life, in the moment. There were so many little things that mattered -- meeting a friend for coffee, watching my daughter learn to read, enjoying the perfection of peaches in season at the farmers' market. As I became practiced at noticing the little things to be thankful for, the bigger things began to come into focus as well. Some of them had been there all along, but I hadn't been able to see them for what they were: important learning experiences that were teaching me more about who I am, how I relate to others, and what I want out of life.

Yes, even those parts of my life that I hadn't imagined or wanted also helped me to see the person I really am, and lead me into an even better future. I could learn to be thankful for it all.