How do we reach a place of gratitude amid grief? If there is a roadmap to this destination, I’m convinced it runs through places like despair and anger and abandonment and sadness, too.
One of the things I’ve learned in my lifetime, both personally and professionally, is that grief and gratitude are not natural partners. In the depths of my own pain, I’ve never been moved to gratitude unless something reminds me of what I still can be thankful for. In my work as a mental health clinician and spiritual director, I can unequivocally say that not once has an individual sat across from me and said, “I am overwhelmed with grief. And I’m also feeling so thankful!” If you are aching with grief and loss, the Thanksgiving holiday may be a day you grit your teeth just to get through. And St. Paul’s counsel that we should “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) may bring feelings of anger and despair rather than inspire you to live out these words.
How do we reach a place of gratitude amid grief? If there is a roadmap to this destination, I’m convinced it runs through places like despair and anger and abandonment and sadness, too. These feeling states are expectable parts of the human grief spectrum that we often visit long before we ever reach gratitude. To deny these felt experiences is to deny integral pieces of our healing process. Sometimes it is only the view from the pit that allows us to realize the blessing of a single step up.
Years ago, I worked as a hospice social worker and bereavement counselor. Hospice is a field where grief is inescapable and unavoidable. Staff grieve, families and friends grieve, and most especially, the dying patient grieves. The dying patient is losing everything and everyone. Whether named or not, the experience of grief and loss is enormous. Yet there were patients who still embodied gratitude. They were often individuals who carried themselves with true humility and taught me what this looks like. They refrained from expounding about what great things they accomplished in their lives. Instead, they realized their equality with all people. They could name their good fortune and those who helped them attain it. They realized that life is not fair, and that life did not owe them anything. They felt blessed to have been given the gift of life, though in such pain because their own would soon be ending. They were often deeply spiritual people with a belief in God and/or a force far greater than themselves.
I discovered that it was impossible for a patient to be truly humble and not thankful too, in some small or large way. They taught me what a humble and thankful heart looks like, and it is their wisdom I think of as Thanksgiving approaches. I offer it to you, also, as you muddle through your grief and loss. I pray that amid your pain, God will give you grace and open your eyes to the gifts of even the very smallest, most humble things. The smile of the stranger in the checkout line at the supermarket. The warmth of the blanket on your chilled body. The colors of the autumn leaves. The various shades of gray in November’s clouds. A friend’s hug. A sweet memory. And perhaps even the thought that we here at Cornerstone are holding you in prayer.
Annie is a Clinician and Spiritual Director for Cornerstone of Hope Columbus.