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Honoring the Legacy of My Mother: The Power of Intentional Gratitude and Celebration

Chris mother Anna Thompson
Chris' mother, Anna graduating from William V.S. Tubman High School, 1971
Chris Thompson
Chris Thompson, Reimagine

January 26, 2023

At my mother Anna’s recent funeral, I met a Mr. M, a gentleman who was apparently my mother’s neighbor back in Liberia. He knew her as a kid, and recalled a time when he scraped his knee while playing, and my mom gave him a band-aid. In tears, he told me many stories that described the kindness and depth of care my mother had for those around her, and how deeply he regretted not staying in touch with her throughout the years.

On October 26, mom spent her 71st birthday in the intensive care unit on a ventilator, wrestling with the Omicron variant. This happened to be the same day that Reimagine hosted its first-ever Circle of Celebration event, honoring founding Board Chair Dr. Jeannie Blaustein–who is facing serious illness and deserves celebration in her own right for her incredible work leading Reimagine–with special guests including Krista Tippett, NYT bestselling author and host of the On Being podcast, and Frank Ostaseski, renowned Buddhist teacher, author, and leader in the field of end-of-life care.

Jeannie co-founded Reimagine and served as Board Chair until earlier this year when she stepped down to best manage her diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

As Reimagine’s Director of Development, I had the privilege of supporting the production of this moving event. I was completely blown away by the turn out, with hundreds of people participating who have been deeply impacted by Jeannie and her work. Childhood friends, college classmates, work colleagues, and members of her faith community all came together to celebrate Jeannie. Reimagine even named an award after Jennifer, and created the Jeannie Blaustein Fund for Loss, Life & Love in her honor to continue sustaining Reimagine’s work in offering our programming at no/low cost, reaching thousands every year seeking to break their isolation, disrupt our cultural aversion to speaking about loss, explore and expose inequities in medical care and the death industry, and catalyze essential healing processes for individuals and communities around death, dying and trauma.

I couldn’t help but be moved to tears during this virtual event. I even had to go off camera a few times to give room for all that I was feeling. What an amazing way to show appreciation to someone who means so much to you.

So often we go through life thinking that tomorrow is a guarantee, and we forget to celebrate those we love while they are with us.

This event made me reflect on the ways I wish I had honored my mother before her dementia got worse. I wish I had told her how proud I was of her, and didn’t wait until she got so sick. I wish that I could have created a Circle of Celebration to honor her life. She was truly an inspiration.

My mother once told me a story from when she was a freshman in high school on a scholarship sponsored through an initiative by John F Kennedy. A few years after his assassination, the sponsorship funding stopped, and she could no longer afford to be in school. But instead of dropping out, she learned to make candy using sweetened condensed milk, and with the money she earned, she managed to pay for her own education. I remember being young and loving this story.

My mom always “made it work”. Her tenacity and courage still give me so much strength. She moved from West Africa to the United States, a completely different continent, and started a whole new life. Her courage and sense of adventure inspire me everyday.

She loved people and caring for others was something that she did so innately. Her first job in the United States was with the NYC Department of Health, where she performed vision and hearing tests and evaluations for hundreds of children in every public school in the borough of Queens. Shortly after, she became a Residential Manager at a nonprofit organization that supported and advocated for pregnant and soon-to-be teenage mothers. After serving in that role for nearly 20 years, she moved to Minnesota, where she became a teacher in Early Childhood Intervention. She then moved to Baltimore and ran a local preschool program. Her last move was to New Jersey, where she herself became a Home Health Aide for disabled elderly people. She accomplished all of this as a single mother, raising three children, graduating college with honors, owning 4 properties, and never earning more than $14 an hour. She never complained and she never lost hope.

After all she gave in her life, it brought me so much sadness that only 16 people attended her funeral, where the few folks who were not immediate family had not seen her in 10+ years. She was such a force and taught me so much. From her, I learned how to cook, clean, and balance a checkbook before high school. She was my real-life YouTube. Because of her, I know how to fertilize soil and create a vegetable garden that can sustain any weather condition. She taught me how to sew, paint, stain hardwood floors, and even install windows. She was my provider, my mentor, my cheerleader, my travel buddy, and my north star. I will always be proud to be called “Anna’s Son”.

There’s so much to be said about intentionally expressing gratitude, love, and appreciation for those in your life.

I really miss my mother. As I move through this journey of grief, some days are better than others. I can be fine one moment, and then a song, a smell, even a phrase can trigger sadness. The beauty from this grief is that my mother’s transition has brought my own family so much closer. My vulnerability is teaching my son’s that it is okay to feel. We are all putting down our smart devices and being more present. I know we have a long way to go, but in honor of Anna’s legacy, we are learning how to celebrate our time together more and more, every single day.

What I have learned through this experience is the power of being intentional about showing someone how much they mean to you. Express your love and gratitude, and live everyday like it could be your last. And, if you are able, please consider donating to help Reimagine build inclusive community engagement programs, designed so that people of all walks of life have opportunities to create and participate in meaningful experiences that open up hard and important conversations about mortality, loss, and what it means to live fully through the end.

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