Grief and Gratitude: Resiliency versus Resentment
By: The Rev. Canon Heather L. Melton, Staff Officer for the United Thank Offering
Several times this summer, I’ve been asked for my thoughts on grief and gratitude. Often, I comment that this is a very complex topic, simply because grief is so complex. I know because I’ve written several versions of this E-News article on different aspects of grief and gratitude. Currently, what I am interested in is how gratitude in the midst of grief can help us build resiliency. I think this is really key, especially for young people, as the pandemic goes from we might be stuck at home for a few weeks, to a few months, to potentially a year.
When my girls started pre-kindergarten, I was introduced to a phrase, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” At first, I thought this was brilliant. Yes, we all have to learn to deal with things that we don’t like to do or don’t want to do. But, the more I thought about it, I realized that this phrase doesn’t foster resiliency but rather resentment. Think about it this way: Let’s say you have 12 cookies and 12 kids. You pass out the cookies, one to each kid (fair, right?), but half of the cookies have chocolate chips and half have raisins. Wow, that is way less fair. I hate raisins. If I got a cookie with raisins, I would be really upset. Or what about the kid who is allergic to chocolate? How is that kid supposed to feel? If we are simply to accept what we get and not express our feelings, needs, or desires, that doesn’t teach us resiliency. And if we simply accept what is handed to us, we miss out on the invitation to practice empathy and problem-solving. If we have to accept what we are given, that might make us resent the person who passed out the cookies without regard for our needs (allergies) or our preferences (hatred of raisins). It also teaches us that our feelings are not valid and that we are disempowered from making changes to an unjust situation, which is a really dangerous lesson to learn. You might be problem-solving right now how to handle this situation, and I am sure there are teachers out there who have this down to a science. But, in my mind, the best solution is to engage the community to find it together. What if we were honest with the kids and outlined the resources, needs, and wants? I bet the children might be able to solve the problem. Some kids would get only one kind because of allergies, while everyone else might get half of each kind. We may end up with a pile of raisins carefully dissected from cookies left behind, and we might even have a few kids who prefer oatmeal raisin over chocolate chip. In the end, we might find that we don’t get exactly what we want but that everyone gets what they need. When that happens, when we acknowledge needs and feelings and work together as a community toward the solution, then we’re taught that our feelings are valid, we’ve practiced empathy, and finally, we can give thanks for what might not have been perfect but what was a perfectly good outcome. This isn’t perfect and it doesn’t mean that every kid will love the solution, but it means that they have a chance to understand their place in the community of people gathered, they can overcome the grief at not having exactly what they want, and their feelings and experiences were heard and valid.
This might seem like a silly example, but what I am trying to get at is that, while the pandemic is hard and there is very real grief involved, gratitude can help us to build resiliency as we move through our grief. This is key because resiliency and gratitude, coupled with empathy, allow us to start looking out for others. Let’s be honest, none of us wants to hear, “We have the pandemic, and we don’t get to be upset about it.” Personally, I have to give myself space about once a week to grieve over something we can’t do or something we can’t access right now. Once I have felt and named my feelings, I can process them, I can find gratitude for what we can do instead, and then I can move on, a little more resilient. But I cannot practice gratitude if I am not first able to feel my feelings, which is to say, we cannot force people to be grateful until we give them space to feel their feelings. For example, it will not help children to understand why they can’t play with their friends by simply saying, “Just be grateful you don’t have COVID.” You need to let them feel their feelings and acknowledge that they are real, and then together come up with a way forward that they can give thanks for, like connecting via FaceTime. And then, after having that experience, give thanks for what they were able to have, even if what wasn’t what they initially wanted. Sometimes, practicing grief and gratitude is about being curious, learning something new, or accepting a new way of doing things. This is the simple act of noticing that, even in the midst of the struggle, God is there, we are never alone nor abandoned, and we just have to seek God out and respond to the glimpse of God when we find it. That response is always gratitude because it is the simple acknowledgement that we are not alone and that God has not turned away from us. But let me be clear: Feel your feelings, and never let anyone tell you to grieve faster or better; and when you are ready, see if you can find ways to get creative, to build resiliency, and to reach out to your community of care to find what you need or give what you can because, in doing that, you will find moments to give thanks for and people to share your gratitude with.
Since I have focused so much on children, I want to end with one finer point of gratitude that we often overlook: the phrase, “No, thank you.” It should be added to the list of “magic words” we teach our children. “No, thank you” is a really powerful statement because it acknowledges that the person you are addressing is trying to give you something that he or she perceives as gift, but it just might not be the right gift for you, it might not be the words you need at the moment, or the person might be trying to fix the problem when you are needing to feel. When we say, “No, thank you,” I believe we are acknowledging and giving thanks for the giver, while being clear that the gift isn’t quite the right fit. “No, thank you” can come in many forms. I once stood by a woman as she shook hands with all the mourners at her husband’s funeral. I listened as she thanked each person. Those who said less-than-helpful things such as, “At least you can be thankful he lived a long life,” she responded with, “I am grateful for you, but I’m not grateful he’s dead.” At first, I was a little shocked, and then I realized that she was feeling her feelings and giving feedback. When someone is grieving, we often want to make the person’s grief go away by pointing out things he or she should be grateful for, but that doesn’t acknowledge the person’s feelings; it simply is said to try to make us feel better. Not every gift is one we should take, but we can accept that the givers are doing their best, and in spite of acting out of their feelings (in this case fear) or the brokenness of the world, they are still part of our community and they showed up, and sometimes, showing up (even if they don’t say the right thing) is enough.
Ultimately, grief is different for each person. In the end, we can nurture resentment or resiliency through the experience of grief. But when we are intentional about how we navigate loss and we focus on God in the midst of the loss, we will find opportunities to give thanks. We’ll mourn not being together for Easter in our churches, but we will give thanks for virtual worship and not having to resort to shouting sermons from the windows as folks walk by, as they did during the Spanish influenza pandemic. We’ll mourn not going out to eat, but we will give thanks for virtual cooking classes. We’ll mourn not gathering together for birthday parties, weddings, and funerals, but we’ll give thanks for car parades, Zoom ceremonies, and grave visiting. We will become more resilient if we feel our feelings and look for God in the community gathered around us, through which we can work together to solve problems, get creative, and simply not be alone. And, when we stop and notice that we are stronger and more resilient, we will once again give thanks … and perhaps need another moment to feel those feelings, too.
Be gentle on yourselves, folks. Remember to be grateful for yourself and that you are not alone. Remember that you are wonderfully made and loved so profoundly by God that even the hairs on your head are numbered and known. I am thankful for each of you, for the masks you wear as a sign that you love and care about me and our community, for the times you stay home, and for the losses you face because each time you feel your feelings and still sacrifice for others, you are a reminder that we are all love letters from God to a broken and hurting world and we are the hands to carry out God’s work of love today.