When Grief and Gratitude Meet
Can you believe Thanksgiving is NEXT WEEK already? Does anyone else refuse to call the fourth Thursday in November “Turkey Day”?
Thanksgiving is the day of the year most synonymous with a grateful heart, yet recent conversations, emails, and text messages from many of you reveal the tension inherent in the oncoming holiday season.
Connie and Brent (all names changed) are grieving for a daughter whose husband has just announced he’s divorcing her, and right before Christmas too. Their soon-to-be former son-in-law seems callous in his regard for their children’s feelings.
Janet, Margaret, Betty, and Jennifer are grieving the recent loss of spouses which changed their status from wife to widow. “After four years, you’d think it would be easier,” one told me wistfully, “but as the years pass, I miss my Jim all the more.”
Patricia is caring for a husband recently diagnosed with a serious illness while at the same time recovering from an accident that totaled their vehicle. She’s grieving the life they once enjoyed.
Matt and Maria are grieving a grandchild’s diagnosis which will impact their son’s family in far-reaching ways.
Did you catch the common denominator? It’s grief.
Yet at the same time, each one mentioned above is someone I know well. I know them to be faithful followers of Christ who consistently express gratitude for all they’ve been given.
Grief + gratitude: they often walk hand-in-hand, don’t they?
My friend Kendra Broekhuis lost a child to stillbirth in 2015 when she was 33 weeks pregnant. Though it’s been eight years, waves of grief still roll over their family at unexpected times. Grief for what was, what is, what nevermore-will-be.
“Before our second baby was stillborn,” Kendra says, “I didn’t understand how gratitude and grief could coexist. I didn’t understand that my heart could be so grateful for what I have, yet so grieved for what I lost. This can be an intensely conflicting couple of months for those who understand what it’s like to feel both gratitude and deep pain at the same time.
“Gratitude and grief don’t cancel each other out. Grief for our sorrow and gratitude for God’s presence live together in tangled harmony. And when we remember that truth, gratitude becomes a conscious, mindful act of worship that we can wrestle toward even when life hurts.”
In her newsletter Present Tense, in which she articulates the tensions of faith in everyday life, Kendra lists five “easy” steps that can help us discern how to move toward gratitude during seasons of sorrow. (You can subscribe here.)
With Kendra's permission, I’m sharing these five steps below.
"Name what hurts – to safe people, but most importantly to God. This might feel like a faux pas in a culture that pretends the power of positivity can cure all wrongs. But it’s a lot easier to be grateful for the good in our lives when we are free to call what is counter to God’s intended design, bad.
"Admit to God that you can’t fix your broken heart or conjure peace that passes understanding. When we are sobered by the reality of our human frailty, we find greater thankfulness for the goodness and grandeur of God. We more fully rely on Him. We understand that we can’t fix what ails us, but God can.
"Before a big event or family gathering, find space to think through the wide variety of emotions you are feeling or anticipate encountering.
Sadness? Guilt? Anger? Hurt?
Even though the holidays pressure us to think we should feel happy, happiness is simply one of many emotions in which we experience life, not our chief goal in life. Being grateful isn’t about feeling happy, it’s about expressing appreciation for who God is and the kindness He has shown us.
"This may not come for years after grieving, but seeing the larger scope of our pain through the lens of faith helps us understand that though life unexpectedly changes and bruises us, our identity as God’s child never changes. We better understand that our suffering is temporary in light of an eternity free from it. We know that disease is painful, but God is our ultimate Healer. Death is the enemy, but Jesus has defeated it. Broken friendships wound, but Jesus is our friend who sticks closer to us than a brother.
And these are things in which we find deep and lasting gratitude.
"Though we don’t have to call sorrow 'good,' we can praise God for the ways our trials have shaped us, broadened our perspective, and matured our faith. Though we don’t have to say we’re grateful for sin or death or pain, we can say we’re grateful for the ways God has provided for us through our experiences with them. Though we might wish things were different, we can be grateful for the fact that our good God never changes." – Kendra Broekhuis
Friends, every one of you has a grateful heart: I know you do. Yet let’s not be ashamed to admit that many of us are grieving as well. As Kendra reminds us, “It’s a lot easier to be grateful for the good in our lives when we are free to call what is counter to God’s intended design, bad.”
This next week, how may I pray for you? Please know I’ll do it with a grateful heart.
- Maggie Wallem Rowe