It’s funny what conversations you overhear as a child that really stick with you. I have a vivid memory of listening to my parents talk about a man in our town and his reactions to his circumstances. His house caught fire – and believing he was “giving thanks in all circumstances” – he set up a lawn chair out on the sidewalk, praising and thanking God (loudly) while he watched his home burn. I remember my parents talking about the chaos of that response, doubting that was really what God had in mind.
Even at that young age of 5 or 6, I caught a glimpse of the difficulty in navigating the relationship between grief and gratitude. Somewhere along the way, I’m guessing the man had heard the scriptural commands to “count it all joy” and “give thanks to the Lord” – yet through a lens of emotional and spiritual health, his lack of acknowledging his loss feels wildly incongruent.
Responding to Grief
I’ve come to discover over the years that many of us (myself included) wrestle with knowing what to do with our grief. A common response to grief and pain is the fear that facing it will swallow us whole so we try to stay far away from it with gratitude. The mindset of “JUST BE THANKFUL,” or “I’m just going to stay positive!” said with a painted-on smile is a milder version of the lawn chair in front of the burning house, yet it still doesn’t acknowledge whatever we’ve lost. It’s gratitude as a defense mechanism, which rarely goes well.
Someone once said to me: “I just want my happy back. Tell me how to get there quickly.” When I suggested that I believed the path was going through the grief, not avoiding it, it didn’t seem like that was the answer the person was wanting to hear. Yet, it’s helpful for us to be grounded in the truth that when we shut down feeling our grief, we inadvertently shut down our capacity to feel deeply at all. That ends up limiting our capacity to feel things like happiness, joy, and authentic gratitude. We find ourselves stuck in the middle somewhere….either emotionally shut down or starting to find ourselves feeling things like resentment and bitterness. Both options can be good indicators that we are sitting with unprocessed grief.
So we find ourselves in this chaotic year of 2020 with our own personal pain and struggles, along with the corporate losses we feel from the pandemic, intense political divisiveness, and painful social unrest. Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and yet what does it look like to be authentically grateful in the midst of such loss and chaos?
I find the words of Psalm 111:1 instructive: I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart. I might have once read those words to mean that the only thing there could be room for was gratitude. All other emotions had to be pushed aside or under the rug. Yet, through the lens of emotionally and spiritually health mentioned earlier, maybe giving thanks with our “whole heart” means that we come to God in this season of thanksgiving with all of what we’re feeling: our grief, our anger, our anxiety, our weariness. We allow ourselves to feel those difficult emotions – which opens the door for us to be authentically thankful for what is good in our lives.
Lament and Praise
We have a trusted road map for this kind of approach. The book of Psalms actually has a higher percentage of laments than praises, and the entire book of Lamentations is all about sitting with our grief. One of the most beloved verses from Lamentations says this: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail (3:21-22). God’s great love is certainly a reason to give thanks….and yet this comes 20 verses after grieving and lamenting. In the previous verses, we read things like “God has turned his hand against me,” and “he shuts out my prayer.” The writer eventually found the path to being thankful for God’s great love, but it was through the path of his deep pain.
As we enter into a season of thanks, may we cling to the truth that allowing ourselves to name and feel our grief and sadness allows space to feel authentic gratitude: for those we love, for the community that is encouraging us as we heal and grow, for how only God could use our pain to bring redemption, and for God’s compassions that never fail.
So let us give thanks with our whole heart. There really is room for all of it.