In one epic Publix commercial: a young boy invites the elderly neighbor for Christmas dinner, and she comes. A son home from college, busy with friends, waves goodbye to a disappointed but silent mom. Then he changes his plans and sits with her and the last piece of pumpkin pie.
“I’ve been looking forward to this all week,” he says.
“So have I,” Mom replies.
And then there’s the one that kept it real:
Here’s to all the early mornings. To the last-minute surprises. And even to the ones that never made it to the table at all. Here’s to the year the power went out. The year that sparks flew. To the overcooked. The overfed. The overtime. Here’s to the biggest kid’s table on the street. Here’s to the day that might not always be flawless, but it’s always perfect.
Sigh. Cue the Kleenex.
The year that commercial first ran, there was one less person at our table. Six weeks before, my fifty-four-year-old husband died of complications from open heart surgery. “Our Father, we thank Thee for these and all our many blessings, Amen,” wouldn’t do this year. Neither would merely being “thankful for the memories.” As we gathered that day, my brother-in-law choked back tears as he asked the blessing. There was no escaping the deep wound that still bled inside each of us sitting at the table. It wasn’t flawless. It wasn’t perfect. Not that year. Gut-wrenching might better describe it. We took keeping it real to a whole new level. How could we both grieve our loss and give God a heart full of thanksgiving?
Grief and Gratitude Are Deeply Tied
Can gratitude and lament abide together? They must, because the Bible calls us to both. Christ has risen from the dead, but my husband remains in the grave. How do we approach a God who could have chosen to heal my husband, but for reasons known only to Him, didn’t? God isn’t afraid of our tough questions and emotional angst. Our sorrow does not negate our gratitude; rather, it accentuates it.
Grief and gratitude can abide together because they share a deeper emotion—love. Consider the well-known passage of 1 Corinthians 13, with the word gratitude in the place of love:
Gratitude is patient and kind; gratitude does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. Gratitude does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Gratitude bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Gratitude never ends.
Honestly, is that what we experience each November? Instead of believing, hoping, and enduring all things, we often soak in resentments and complain. We sit in our brokenness and tears and ask God why. Why do young children suffer? What have they done? Why do brothers and sisters of color endure countless instances of hate? Why do good men die young? If God is a god of love, why is there all the pain and suffering in the world? It’s okay to ask those questions, but not to remain there indefinitely. Our grief has an ultimate destination.
“Lament is the heartfelt and honest talking to God through the struggles of life . . . Simply stated, lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust,” writes Pastor Mark Vroegop. He knows this journey well, having buried his infant daughter, Sylvia. (You can read more of his story in his book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament.)
Grief Is Not Easy, but Also Not Eternal
Healthy grief doesn’t seek to ignore the reality of our pain in a guise of pseudo-faith. When a mother takes her two-year-old to the doctor, the toddler doesn’t see the experience as good, and it can be difficult, if not impossible, to explain it to her. Like that toddler, we don’t have a clear view on this side of heaven of all God is doing. We have been kept from a great many whys and are left with a Who—the God of all comfort.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2 Cor. 1:3–5)
Unlike gratitude, which we will forever owe to the Lord, grief will one day cease to be. Relationships that have been strained for years will know unmitigated love. Wars will cease, heartaches will end. We will know why, but I believe it won’t matter so much in that day, for we’ll have a technicolor view of our great God that will take our breath away. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).
As deep as the ache of widowhood has been, Christ is deeper still. He has drawn near to my family in our suffering. It is precisely because we ache that Christ came. Christ died on the cross, and everything sad is becoming untrue. Jesus will bring reconciliation, restoration, and rest from the trials we now endure. A day will come when I will see my husband again. The finished work of Christ makes that possible. Is that reason enough to rejoice, even in sorrow?
The Clarks count “Be Still, My Soul” as our family anthem. It’s more precious to us now than ever before, and we will never cease to sing it:
Be still, my soul: The hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: When change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.