When we take ourselves out of the crosshairs of daily life and gradually begin to focus again on life going on around us, this is a sure sign that we are making progress in grief. We see things differently and appreciate the beauty of nature in a different, more spiritual way. We consider the world and appreciate that we are part of a continuum of sorrow and joy, disappointment and hope, loss and victory, death and life. We better understand the heart and mind of God because we have grieved.
A few years ago I attended a college graduation at the quasi-military institution my beloved father attended. As a proud member of the corps of cadet, he was commissioned on graduation in 1941to serve in the United States Army during World War II. Over the graduation weekend, I saw cadets on campus enjoying their proud tradition and felt my father’s warm presence around every corner. Quite unexpectedly, I experienced a private reunion with my father amid the noise and celebration of a new generation of graduates.
An aspect of grief that seems oddly counterintuitive to our experience of loss is gratitude. When it comes right down to it, who is ever really grateful for being forced by death to experience grief? Yet when we reflect on those who have been present to us in our time of pain and sorrow, we see that we have been supported by a thousand-person army. We give thanks for the physical and spiritual presence of those who love us when we are heartbroken and truly comfortless. We give thanks for those who are tireless in meeting our most mundane daily needs through a time of deep grief. We give thanks for those who are faithful in their prayers for our restoration to life. Gratitude is an endowment of grief that enlarges both our soul and our spirit. Inevitably, the death of one we love leads us to a deeper appreciation of life, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever” (1 Chronicles 16:34).
Author Wayne Muller writes, "It is impossible to create a sufficient, contented life by ourselves. In truth, we do nothing at all completely by ourselves. We absolutely depend on a living community of countless others who accompany us each step of our lives. Have we ever grown all our own food, built our own homes, woven cloth for our own clothing, or produced our own electricity? Every moment we live, it is through the generous labor of countless lives”.6
Among the thousand-person army that marches through our lives each day are countless nameless people who acknowledge us with a smile or a gesture of personal outreach. We are blessed by those who do the immeasurably valuable though sometimes thankless work of the world—child care professionals, teachers, mentors, grocery clerks, bus drivers, school crossing guards, fire fighters, law enforcement officers, dry cleaners, hospitality workers, housekeepers, service professionals, nursing home aides, sitters, pharmacists, dentists, and the countless dedicated doctors and nurses who work tirelessly to save lives every day.
If we stop to count those who attend to the needs of our lives, the number easily climbs into the thousands. Well beyond salary or status, these people share one thing in common—a single-minded commitment to service, “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord” (Ephesians 6:7 NIV). Service to others is an expression of human grace that inhales gratitude and exhales love. Service to others transcends grief. Service to others heals our heart and renews our spirit. Service to others demonstrates the power and presence of God at work in the world.
How do we serve others as an expression of gratitude? Perhaps we lead or attend a grief group and offer a listening, compassionate heart as we care for others and for ourselves. Perhaps we join a non-profit group that supports a cause, one that feels especially personal because of our experience of the death of one we love. Perhaps we volunteer and offer pro bono professional services to improve the lives of others. Our response may be, "But I am not a leader or a world changer". It is not necessary to be either, "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms" (1 Peter 4:10). In the words of Greek philosopher Archimedes, "Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world."
The gratitude of grief inspires us to be instruments of love and change in the world, "For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do" (Hebrews 6:10). When we enlist in the thousand-person army and join the legion of those who serve others, we stand ready to change lives and the world.
In the aftermath of contemporary incidents of racial discrimination, violence, and senseless death, the best hope for a real, lasting social transformation beyond the obvious need for a sea change in the historic disparity between those divided by issues of race, is that we must all be better and do better—together, now. Change starts with learning how to be truly colorblind as a society. We must teach our children by what we say and how we act and live, “But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
We must be unfailingly polite, whether in person or on social media. We must model kindness, civility, and respect for each person, especially toward those who look different from who we see in our own mirror, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). We must be loving, act with love, and practice absolute love, “I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:24). We must change or unlearn our generational conditioning and habits of thinking and doing until at last our love for each and every living human being conquers hate and overcomes evil in the world.
When we are present to others with gratitude, love, and service, with our hands and heart we express the presence of God to each person in the thousand-person army, “Serve the Lord with celebration! Enter his gates with thanks; Thank him! Bless his name!” (Psalm 100:2, 4 CEB).