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First post in a new series: Grief AND thankfulness

Lynne Baab • Wednesday October 30 2019

First post in a new series: Grief AND thankfulness

The past eight months have been unusually challenging: my husband Dave’s sister died unexpectedly, both Dave and I have had some frustrating medical things, and I’ve experienced several other losses. This feels like a time of grief for me. I’m closer to tears – or in tears – much more often, and I simply feel sad a lot.

At the same time, the past few months have been full of joys. We visited Yosemite this past summer, my first time, and a joyful return for Dave. The weather was clear and, oh, what an amazing place it is. The fall leaves have been glorious this year and have given me so much joy. We are so grateful for our kids, their partners, our granddaughter, our home, our friends, and so many small and large gifts from God.

In addition, from mid-July to mid- October, I had the huge privilege of being the “staff support pastor” while our senior pastor was on sabbatical. I enjoyed doing my best to support the wonderful 11 staff members at our church, and I felt God’s guidance and empowerment in numerous situations. I loved it! And I loved having it end!

A few weeks ago I was feeling some dissonance with these two aspects of my life. If I’m experiencing so many things to be thankful for, then why is the grief so strong? If the grieving is so powerful, how is it that I can also have so many moments of deep thankfulness?

I came across a quotation that helped me think more clearly about this pattern. Francis Weller, a psychotherapist, said these words in an interview. He is the author of a book about grief entitled The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief.

"The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible."
“The Geography of Sorrow: Francis Weller on Navigating our Losses” in the Sun Magazine

In the interview where the quotation came from, Weller talks about the fact that for most of human history, we grieved communally. His words made me so grateful for the friends who allow me to talk honestly about losses.

My knee-jerk approach is to try to find a stable place within my emotions. The best place, a part of my brain says, is to stick to some midpoint in my emotions, some balanced and even-keeled way of living. Next best would be to be thankful all the time or grieving all the time. A stable point would help me know what to expect emotionally each day.

Instead, this pathway of grief AND thankfulness often feels intense, painful, and uncomfortably unpredictable. I feel off balance.

This notion of keeping grief in one hand and gratitude in another seems like a major area of growth for me for the next weeks/months/years. Who knows how long? This is a new frontier for me, and I’m eager to learn more.

All the years of thankfulness prayers (that I have written about frequently, see below) have laid a strong foundation for the thankfulness portion of this new pathway. And some therapy I had three years ago where I learned to separate thoughts from feelings, and allow myself to feel the feelings, laid another foundation. (I wrote a series on this blog about that, and the first post is here).

For the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about scriptures that I’m exploring to help me keep grief in one hand and gratitude in the other.

Next week: Psalm 131, the weaned child on its mother’s breast. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below to get an email when I post on this blog.

My book on this topic – Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life, now available as an audiobook as well as paperback and kindle.

Some previous posts about thankfulness on this blog:

     Why optimism and thankfulness are not the same thing
     Five favorite quotations about thankfulness              
     The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things              
     Thomas Merton on our transparent world               
     A thankfulness challenge – reframing events in your mind and in your prayers               
     Another thankfulness challenge – why thankfulness matters
     Joy spot sightings               

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