Today’s devotion from Nouwen got me thinking about gratitude. He focused on how we choose to come to our final days whether with bitterness and resentments or with gratitude and thanksgiving. As I prayed about this, I focused more and more on the gratitude side of things, moving from the gratitude on the part of the one who passed away to focusing on gratitude for the life of the one who has passed away. Into that praying, a short while later, came a blog post from a dear friend of mine who was writing about the one year anniversary of her father’s death. The whole of Arianne’s family has been very important to my own family and we were humbled by the way that Tom lived – truly lived – in the years he battled cancer and the grace with which he lived and the way that he went on to eternal life. With permission from Arianne, I am posting what she wrote today on her blog:
On grief, gratitude, and hope…
Today marks one year since my Dad died. I’ve written a lot about my dad in this space, and owe the name and formation of the blog to him. I’ve reflected on the impact he made in this world and my life, and how his last vision before dying was the inspiration for our daughter’s name.
He was a tremendous human being. An incredible husband. A beautiful, beautiful father. He was not perfect, nor was our relationship, but we adored each other. The hole of his absence is wide and deep. We walked (and ran) much of life together in close connection.
And so this year, Grief has been one of my most influential teachers. Though not a gentle teacher, I’ve discovered it to be a patient one, giving me the space and grace to feel whatever I feel and journey at my own pace. It’s taught me to embrace the crests and nadirs, the zigs and zags, in which my heart goes, rather than confining my soul to some kind of linear progression.
Some of the most freeing, helpful words I received at the time of Dad’s death concerned the seemingly conflicted things one can feel at the same time. My friend wrote,
I pray that you have the space to feel fully, without restriction, all the many complex and perhaps contradictory emotions you’re experiencing. Sometimes people (maybe even we ourselves) don’t want to give space for those contradictions. They want us to be only sad or only hopeful. Only angry or only at peace. Only faithful or only doubtful. But life, and trauma especially, is just so much more complicated than that. I guess folks don’t know how to deal with contradictions, and so it makes them uncomfortable; they’re harder to solve. But I guess that’s all sort of the point: this isn’t something that can be solved. It’s just something to BE WITH. It’s just something to allow to BE, that moment when we’re smiling or laughing or just feeling OK, followed, seemingly without transition, by the moment we fall apart and wail.”
His words reminded me of the phrase our family coined in that final week of Dad’s life – “joyful sorrow.” It’s one to which I’ve returned this week as my soul’s heard the echoes of a year ago. How can a heart feel so much pain and so much gratitude at the same time?
It seems unfair, almost a cruel kind of punishment, that the price we pay for our closest relationships is the agony of sadness when the other person leaves. But the purest love and the most genuine loss always interlace.
I will always remember sitting in the living room with Dad just a few days before he died – he on the big, green recliner, me on the couch. “You know, Arianne,” Dad said, “your lives…they’ll go on.”
“That’s hard to imagine right now,” I said.
“I know,” Dad replied, “but they will.”
I couldn’t fathom it then, but life is an incremental guide, and with each day, I’ve heard God and Dad both say,
You’re doing it.
I think the greatest gift we can give our beloveds who die is the promise to keep living with passion, loving with dangerous trust, and letting the cracked-wide hearts within us remain vulnerably open. Life will always be different, but it can be good. And while we don’t get over our losses or “move on,” somehow God – with gracious, gentle hands – folds them into the fabric of who we are. We become deeper, kinder people because of it.
A few months ago, I was in the midst of cleaning out my office at church after ending my job. In the morass of files, I came across an email I’d printed off from my Dad. The email was from 2011 when I was in the midst of my final year in seminary. I was working on a thesis about spiritual and emotional support for families facing cancer. In the midst of that project, Dad wrote me this message. It was God’s gift of mercy that I found the note. I’m not sure what compelled me to print it off those years ago, other than it is my Dad’s heart, life, and theology, in sum. He wrote,
It is tempting, for all of us, to measure God’s blessing in some type of tangible way, looking at the “good gifts” as signs of His love and favor, and to “answered prayers” as evidence that God really is listening, and that we somehow changed His mind in mid-stream. I don’t think that takes into serious account the nature of God’s sovereignty, nor the substance of prayer. It is also easier for those who subscribe to the so-called “success theology” to lean into interpretations of life events in such a superficial way. Anyone who truly plumbs the depths of suffering and evil in this world does not find such answers satisfactory for very long. Given these past eight years, I have mused on such things quite a bit.
God truly makes the rain fall upon the just and the unjust. The thorn is not always removed. The cup not only doesn’t pass us by, it smacks us in the face. But what do we find? God is God (see Job). In weakness, we are strong, and God’s glory is made known (see Paul). A bold, but impestious disciple dies a martyr’s death, but not before turning the early church on its head, and paving the way for all of us gentiles to join the family (see Peter). Joshua 1:9 becomes profoundly true. The ultimate tragedy, the Cross, becomes our greatest hope. It’s a very, very long list, indeed. Ultimately, God is glorified by those who are faithful, in all circumstance. And prayer becomes so much more than a Christmas wish list, with results predicated on whether I have been naughty or nice. I believe prayer is much more about changing US — both in the singular sense, and in the communal context. The power of prayer last summer, at least to me, was in the collective of family and friends, God’s people, approaching the throne of grace on my behalf, and what that means to us as fellow believers, and as a Christian community. And I found great comfort in knowing I could pour my heart out to God, not so He would know what I was feeling or going through (He obviously had a pretty good bead on that already), but because that is what He has asks us to do. I had a great peace that whatever the outcome, renewed health or physical demise, obedience and submission were the keys to all good things, and the fulfillment of the ultimate purpose of my life — to glorify my Creator. And THAT is God’s sovereign will, I believe.
So as I remember Dad, as I give God thanks, as I exhale and inhale and live into whatever this new season will be, I pray….
I let go.
I say thank you.
I pray Your glory in and through me.
releasing the breath that once gave me life.
receiving fresh breath for this season
where I will wail and wonder
I will dance,
letting my limp remind my soul and world
that broken bodies learn new rhythms of beauty.
With You, pain finds a home
in something larger than itself.
And sacred scars hold haven over
wounds that bless.
I let go.
I say thank you.
I pray Your glory in and through me.