And I heard him murmur last week… “I don’t want to ever feel like that again!”
It’s never too late to be thankful. It’s forever smart to tend to our pain. Gratitude and grief are selfish and not so insecure. Noun or verb, they seek our attention. In many ways—some visible and some not—some healthy and some dangerous– some for the good and some for the not-so-good, they abhor being alone demanding our friendship and ultimate loyalty. They are relentless in their pursuit. So, forgive me, for my own sake and yours that I offer up some grumbling caution today as gratitude and grief can and will disguise themselves in an attempt to confuse us and cause us to stumble. And forgive me, please if I suggest we be grateful for our grief. Our lives depend on it!
The PeopleUSA just celebrated our favorite secular holiday. For many and most, Thanksgiving Day is a festive, warm and cozy kind of occasion. Family and friends will drive miles, hours or days to gather and share in a government mandated day of gratitude and rest. We have permission to eat way too much even if it’s just one day on the calendar compared to all the rest and we have to come to appreciate its sacredness when held up against all of our other mealtimes. No matter what age, on the fourth Thursday in November, our gratitude is real and our sense of thankfulness lingers carrying over into other days and occasions. And so it should. It’s never too late to be thankful.
Our pain, however, on such a day as this, is not merely attributed to multiple helpings of turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes and pecan pie. It goes beyond a plate full of food! We do tend to eat way too much and while the pain in our bellies will linger only a while, the pain in our hearts and minds can get stirred up by our conversations and our remembrances of family and friends who have enjoyed this sacred day with us but are no longer present. The pain of their absence is more real than we want to admit and contrary to public rumor there is no little purple pill to render us relieved. It takes a different kind of effort to truly address and acknowledge our emotional pain. Grief work is not just a step-up-and-fill–your-plate-one-day-a-year kind of thing nor to be confused with making the multiple trips to the dessert tray and wet bar for seconds and thirds on Thanksgiving Day. Our grief work requires patient diligence and a certain kind of tenacity—a tenacity usually equal to the pain of the losses we have experienced. It is smart, then, to intentionally tend to our pain as pastors, priests, rabbis, and counselors have declared the time between Thanksgiving Day through Christmas and into the New Year “Depression Alley”… the time of year that can be more dangerous than any other time. So, while it’s not unusual to hear someone else, if not ourselves, say the words, “I don’t ever want to feel like that again!” be mindful that our paying attention to gratitude’s and grief’s pursuit of our affections is worthy work. Otherwise, we pay for it in other ways. Each of us and all of us!
Frankly, one of my own theories of why our too often self-indulgent leisure-focused culture is the way it is… is because both our gratitude and our grief are misunderstand or ignored. Our sense of being blessed can create in us unhealthy and selfish actions and we have sanitized our tending to death while ignoring our grief. Great-grandma dies on Sunday afternoon. Her obituary is in the paper on Monday, the funeral is Tuesday at 1:00 pm and we all return to work and life on Wednesday, as if nothing of importance has happened to us. But, look…the family and friends and community have lost one who was guilty of loving four generations! And when we as individuals, family, community or nation ignore the pain, grief will rear its ugly head and cause us to do things we don’t even know we are doing… or worse… simply become paralyzed, doing nothing at all. It’s like what Ernst Becker said way back in the 20th century… “Americans deal with death this way… we drink or take pills…or go shopping which is just the same” ( The Denial of Death/ 1977). Now hold that up against ‘Black Friday”…it’s the perfect trap!
Recently, I heard someone say words like these… “Evil comes to us all dressed up like the life we think we want to have! And as we embrace this life, we, in time discover, this is no life at all… as evil’s intent is to drain us of life’s meaningfulness and abundance—literally to suck the real-ness of life out us and replace it with itself…fully!” Wow! In both cases… gratitude begins as a gift from God… a good gift… an acknowledgement of blessing… ours to have, ours to use and ours to give away…likewise for grief—a gift from God poking our hearts and minds to remind us life’s fragile sacredness… a true sign of love given, love received and love shared and now oh so different… as in either case, it seems it is not the healthiest for us to hold on to either!
Therefore, I’m giving my gratitude away back to God and to others… and I hope you will too…and also letting my grief be real and use to prompt goodness in me for the sake of my life in God and with you and others… God can handle my pain… and I hope you will give yours back also… as God’s love is big enough to handle all the pain in the world… at least according to the Bible and Martina McBride! So, here’s my short list to help you through the coming weeks and deeper into the coming year..
- PACE YOURSELF Gratitude and grief should not be handled in a hurry! Let yourself take charge of their clock. Recent studies show that those who listen to Christmas music too early will find themselves overtly discouraged by the time December 24-25 rolls around. So, start slow and make good use of the 12 days of Christmas… through January 5!
- BE REALISTIC If this is your first holiday with loss, be kind to yourself by knowing that this holiday may be more difficult than those passed. You will likely have uncomfortable emotions and may not be very cheerful. As you own that others will see God’s confident spirit within you.
- SEEK THE JOY IN OTHERS – This can be difficult but see if you can notice any moments that provide a sense of comfort. Whether it’s a child being pleasantly surprised by a gift, the taste of special food, a smile on your face, or simply feeling relieved when the holidays pass. Feelings will come and go, but see if you notice any moments while they are there. A look in the mirror will help!
- KEEP THE CLOSE ONES CLOSER – Let them know that your emotions may arise and while you appreciate them trying to cheer you up, you may not want to be cheery! It’s OK for you to have feelings. Remind your family and friends that our feelings don’t dictate our relationships; they help us define them. You may quietly want to designate someone to be your “spiritual barometer” and hold you accountable if the grief gets too intense.
- KNOW WHEN TO STOP OR PAUSE Taking a break can be healthy for everyone. Give yourself permission to leave the group of people if it’s getting too overwhelming and take a time-out. Go on a walk, lie down in another room, or just remove yourself and have a good cry. These emotions need to pass through and it is OK to take time to experience them.
- REMEMBER THAT YOU HAVE BEEN LOVED – We create healthy personal and family rituals while living. You may want to create some sort of ritual where you express your feelings toward that person or persons who have died. This could be writing a letter, going to the grave, or spending time in prayer if you are spiritual or religious. You can create your own idea.
- GIVING – Often times being generous toward others ‘unknown’ is a great way to work through grief. Maybe this year you want to share a gift to the Water 2 Thrive, the ELCA World Hunger Program, or volunteer somewhere like a homeless shelter or make/buy special gifts for those who are around that you care about. It’s a proven response to our pain and grief.
- BE PROACTIVE IN YOUR GRIEF JOURNEY Grief support via group AND/OR individual therapy have long-term value. It can take 2-3 years for most to find their way back to “life as we know it” following significant loss. If you haven’t already checked out a grief support group, this may be a good thing to investigate. Look online in our area (or call me to get started!) to see what is inviting to you. Individual therapy (remember, “therapy” literally means ‘care of the soul!”) can also be a powerful support during this time. Can you think of a better gift for yourself this Christmas?
It’s taken me a while…it’s daily work sometimes, but I have come to see my pain as my friend. I give thanks to God for the grief I have experienced as I am reminded that I am alive and I have been loved. The loss I experience is real and a sign that I will someday be the one who is missed.
Let then some comfort come to you from God’s Word… Psalm 119:143-144 reminds us all…
” Trouble and distress have come upon me,
but your commands give me delight.
Your statutes are always righteous;
give me understanding that I may live.”
These really are great days! Let your gratitude be as real as real can be…it is both a friend and foe… and let your grief be as real as real can be as well.. a friend who doesn’t stray far… as sometimes, like in life, our best friends didn’t start out that way…