On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a Proclamation, “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” At an historic time of divisive civil war, no one was spared from grief. Everyone lost someone or something—a loved one, property, dignity, or an old way of life.
The Proclamation urges those who would observe Thanksgiving Day to pray for “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife”. Especially today, we are among those who need prayer at this season of thanksgiving—we who are widows, orphans, mourners, and those everywhere who suffer because of civil strife.
Though it may seem like a paradox of extremes, grief and gratitude are inextricably linked. Gratitude is an aspect of grief that seems oddly counterintuitive to our experience of loss and sadness. When it comes right down to it, who is ever really grateful for the experience of grief? However we reconcile the effect of death and grief on our heart and spirit, when the final outcome of all our pain and sorrow is deep gratitude for the sacred gift of life, we are transformed both emotionally and spiritually by the death of one we love.
For many, the holidays are an emotion-laden time of the year. As those around us celebrate, we may be painfully aware of the absence of the one we love and now grieve. Perhaps a beloved father always carved the turkey and we feel the void of his faithful family leadership. Or an empty seat at the table reminds us of one whose presence will no longer be part of the occasions of our life. Yet even as we grieve, our faith urges us to be thankful to God for every bounty of life. We give thanks for the one now lost to us in death and the lasting legacy of his or her love that lives on in us and through us forever.
As we gather together to feast and remember, if our heart is wounded by the neglect or insensitivity of another, we master our momentary pain when we focus on gratitude. On a Sunday morning I felt my heart simmering with some stale, leftover resentment about who knows what. As I went to church and entered into worship, it was impossible to sing “blessings all mine and ten thousand beside” and still hang on to my hurt. Gratitude has the power to release our heart and cleanse our spirit. Gratitude puts us in a better place, a place that pleases God and honors the memory of our loved one.
When we grieve at Thanksgiving, we give thanks for the one we love and now grieve. We give thanks for the gifts of his or her spirit that inspire and bless our lives each day—unconditional love, goodness, generosity, kindness, self-sacrifice, faithfulness. We thank God for the courage to persevere when relationships are imperfect or flawed. We overcome adversity when we live in the certainty that we have “chosen the better part” (Luke 10:38 NRSV).
Gratitude and grief—equal and opposite forces that at once vie for our emotional attention and elevate our heart. Gratitude inspires us to go beyond ourself to serve others. Gratitude honors our grief and enlarges our heart. If we are hungry for God as we grieve at Thanksgiving, the feast is ours for the taking. We have only to receive the redeeming gifts of God that set us free from the past and restore our heart to thanksgiving and wonder for the unlimited love and steadfast faithfulness of God.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.
Psalm 107:21-22 NRSV