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Grief AND thankfulness: Feeling responsible

Lynne Baab • Friday November 15 2019

Grief AND thankfulness: Feeling responsible

When something bad happens, and I have a big learning moment from it, I try to be thankful in the midst of frustration, sadness and pain. This combination of pain and learning is an unexpected pattern that fits with the grief AND thankfulness call I’ve been feeling.

Here’s my latest example. On Saturday night I was pouring boiling hot broth out of a crockpot into a bowl. The crockpot slipped a little bit – not that much! – but it bumped the bowl, which tipped onto my left arm. I have a big and very nasty burn on my left arm.

The next day at church one of my friends pointed me toward a church member who works in a burn unit. After church, this lovely nurse looked at my burn and gave me lots of instructions, some of which weren’t on the websites about burn care I had consulted. She was truly an angel of mercy to me.

I’m so thankful for her. I’m also thankful for the AHA moment the burn gave me: Grief is different when I feel that I am at fault for the awful thing that happened. I’m really sad about the burn, and I feel like an idiot for not being more careful. Consider these examples which illustrate different levels of responsibility:

Grief example #1 – My husband’s sister died in May. I had nothing to do with her death, but I am grieving alongside her husband and daughter. I experience sadness but no guilt.

Grief example #2 – I can no longer walk for exercise because I have so many joint problems (hips, knees, feet) from osteoarthritis, which was caused by inflammation and obesity, both of which were caused by eating too much and especially eating too many inflammatory foods like cookies and cake. I loved walking and praying, a major source of both exercise and spiritual health for decades, so my grief about no longer walking very much is intense.  In this example my grief is coupled with feelings of guilt and responsibility, an internal mess of thoughts and feelings.

Grief example #3 – challenging relationships. This example falls somewhere in the middle between the previous two examples. Sure, some of the people in my life are difficult. But in many instances, I can see that I am at least partly responsible for the challenges in those relationships. I can see moments when I don’t have enough love, I’m not patient enough, and so on. Again, grieving about those relationships is coupled with other messy feelings of guilt and shame.

I wrote last week about my inner dialog that has been criticizing my feelings of grief, especially in the light of so many things I’m thankful for. If I’m so thankful, why aren’t the thankful feelings enough to overcome the grief? Writing the blog post last week was helpful to me, and in the intervening week I have felt more accepting of grief AND thankfulness.

But then sloshing hot broth onto my left arm helped me see an additional kind of inner dialog I experience. When I feel responsible for something I’m grieving, the grief is messy, complicated by my feelings of shame and guilt.

Can I grow in releasing the guilt and shame into God’s hands so that I can grieve more cleanly and simply? Can I accept that even when I am partly or fully responsible for the bad thing that happened, I can still feel deep sadness and bring that sadness into God’s presence, like a child resting in her mother’s lap? Is God’s love great enough that I can leave everything in my heart in God’s hands?

     I have calmed and quieted my soul,
     like a weaned child with its mother;
     my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
     O Israel, hope in the Lord
     from this time on and forevermore.
          —Psalm 131: 2, 3

Next week: another scripture that has been speaking to me as I think about holding grief AND thankfulness in two hands. Illustration by Dave Baab. I welcome new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.

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

A previous post about grief you may enjoy, the story of my mother and the death of her little sister.

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