Thanksgiving is the first of the many grief landmines that threaten to disrupt the holidays. It is the start to a season of many painful triggers for those who have lost a child. It’s a time that encourages the loving gathering of families around tables piled high with annual delicacies. A time when much thought goes into the recounting all the year’s blessings. But, for bereaved parents, it is a reminder of the empty chair at the table; of favorite dishes that will be uneaten. It’s a time that kicks off the navigation of the Christmas landmines we also dread. It is a time when the absence of our child weighs even heavier in our already lethargic hearts. A time when we would rather stay under the safety of blankets in our lonely bedrooms and emerge only when the calendar can be replaced with a new year.
After the loss of a child, parents are thrown unwillingly into a new normal which includes the holiday season. We are now faced with juggling the paradox of faith and fear, happiness and heartbreak, gratitude and grief. The struggle that occurs when balancing these seemingly contradictory emotions can be both confusing and exhausting. So, how do we deal with grief on a day that was set aside for gratitude? How do we embrace gratitude when life is full of hurt? How do we wake up with a thankful heart when we are numb with losses and crushed dreams?
First, we might need to adjust our expectations of gratitude. Gratitude is malleable and like the clay on a potter’s wheel our perception of gratitude will change depending on how the hands of life move. As the wheel begins to spin, we may find we can make broad general statements of thanksgiving that span a life time. But, when the fingers of life press in and begin to painfully reshape us, we may simply be grateful to get through a moment. We now have to make an intentional effort to slow down and be mindful to appreciate small things-the smell of rain, the sound of bird singing, the color of the sun as it dips to slumber for the night, the ice crystals on the window, the first blossom of spring.
It would be thoughtless of me to placate you by proposing that gratitude will quash grief. Gratitude is in no way a cure for grief, but nor does grief nullify gratitude. We can perhaps be more grateful than most for the blessings of life, for the sorrow in our hearts continually reminds us what it means to lose them. We are more aware of the value of life, both its beauty and its pain. But, there is a healing power in giving thanks and expressing gratitude. It helps to build courage, perseverance, and peace. It unlocks the fullness of life
I love many of today’s worship songs, but I am so thankful for the hymns that I grew up singing in church and that were sung in my home and played in our car. The Holy Spirit often brings them to my mind.
Count Your Blessings
Words by Johnson Oatman, Jr.
Music by Edwin O. Excell
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, ev’ry doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by.
So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.
Oatman’s words in no way imply that life is not riddled with problems. He is not suggesting that we ignore our raging emotions. He does, however, encourage us to bring the problems, trials, disappointments, frustrations and broken hearts that leave us “tempest tossed” to our God who is “over all.” He alone is the source of “help and comfort” in the turbulent journey that is our current trek. He is the Father of Compassion who walks beside us now, but who also sits on a throne and will one day welcome us to His home in heaven where there will be no more sorrow and where we will forever sing His praises. John’s revelation of heaven reveals that all creatures will give honor and thanks to him who sit on the throne:
“Day and night they never stop saying; ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.’” – Revelation 4:8
Thanksgiving is the language of heaven. Oh how I long to sit next to my son and feast at a banquet table filled with so much more than our Thanksgiving table could possibly hold and sing the praises of my Faithful Father in unison with the angels and ten thousands upon ten thousands.
Until then, we must wait and march through the field of the holiday season which is riddled with landmines. Know that it will be hard and emotional no matter what you do. Know your limits. Cry when you need to. Laugh when you want to. Don’t be afraid to say no or tell people you need to be alone. Adjust your expectations, but embrace the healing power of gratitude. Shift your focus from the blessings to the One who blesses. Gratitude is more than a spontaneous response to physical blessing. It is a way of life that can help make sense of the past, bring a needed rest and peace for the ugliness of today, and provide hope for tomorrow. It’s about love – the love of a special child whose chair sits empty; the memories of yesterday and the promises of tomorrow. Realize that you can successfully navigate the paradox of Thanksgiving. We are both grateful and grieving.