Grief & Gratitude with Family of Origin

As we prepare to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, Dan and Rachael continue their discussion on the intersection of grief and gratitude, focussing on how to engage those categories in our families of origin. In this episode, they dive into how to balance these two realities in our stories while we’re in a season of family gatherings and celebrations.

Episode Transcript

Dan: Well Rachel, we are closer and closer to the infamous moments where we gather with our families for this succession of indulgence, football, or whatever sport you watch and a few statements likely around the table of what you’re grateful for for this year. So we’re back into the frame of gratitude. But we’re going to focus here on your family of origin and how… how now, how now, do we fully enter into this intersection of grief and gratitude with regard to our family of origin? Let’s just say it’s not easy. Mhm. I can tell you one particular table conversation. This was a number of years ago actually, quite a few years ago and our children, I don’t think any of them were married at that point.

Rachael: I think I remember this story and I’ve been like, I think I took a note like you really have to decide if you ever want to offer that someday. Many years down the road.

Dan: Uh yeah, she, she writes about this in uh book

Rachael: Becky does?

Dan: And yeah, it just was disastrous. Like that’s all. Just talk about how grateful we are and and especially let’s be grateful for our family. Oh my gosh, uh sadly wonderfully. Uh you know, we’ve allowed our children to tell the truth at least up to a point and they told the truth about what things really broke their heart about our family. And I’m like, come on, there’s a meme here. It’s like say something sappy and simple about, “God is good, God is great. Let us thank him for this crate.” I don’t know. I thought it was for food, but it didn’t rhyme. All to say, when we step into engaging our family of origin, especially if they’re at the Thanksgiving day event. It’s got complications.

Rachael: I mean this is maybe gonna be a little disruptive. But even the concept of Thanksgiving as a holiday and the origin stories we tell about it is a story of denial and a story of idolatry. And so, so many of us are uh you know about our country’s origins and everyone got together and ate around a table and there wasn’t like genocide and stealing of land and lying and broken treaties of people that you know, still exists today. And broken treaties that still exist today. And so again, I know we’ve moved away from some of those stories, but I think that feels actually very familiar in our families of origin, the ways in which we move towards a kind of family narrative that protects us all from entering grief and like the multiple layers of grief because you know what if we actually believe we’re all sinners, then there’s no way to escape grief in in a family. So I, yeah, I mean we all know these ways in which grief and gratitude with our families can move in extremes. And you and I would like to encourage our listeners to avoid, to avoid being on any end of the spectrum too long between grief and gratitude, because if the way you view your family is, it’s all grievous. So maybe sometimes those are the stories that are told, it’s all terrible, it’s all bad and there’s no place for gratitude, then that actually is not even grief, that is probably more in the realm of like bitterness because it’s a refusal to see what was good because if you can hold onto, there was even an ounce of goodness, it will break your heart. Like where that where that could not be more of the main reality. And I think also it’s a missed opportunity to begin to look at how some of the brokenness is being renewed and redeemed or very at the very minimum, where you might be invited, might be being invited, to break generational cursing on behalf of your family to to be in some ways, one who leads the way into new possibilities. But if all we feel, there’s a profound absence of gratitude, it’s just not, we will move much more towards cynicism towards avoidance towards hatred that keeps us safe but still connected.

Dan: Mhm. Well, immediately comes to mind my, I’ve said many times that my father was a monosyllabic man, a full sentence or two was really rare. But six weeks before he died, my father and I sat on this little concrete stoop outside his house and it was probably close to four hours of me confessing that I had really failed him as a son and he acknowledging his own failure as a father. And he said, I know you have wanted me to talk more and to tell you more about my life. And there were a major other things that occurred. But in this endeavor I said yes, I said you were in the first way or second wave at Iwo Jima, first wave at Peleliu. Would you tell me what that was like as a 19 year old master sergeant? Yeah. And my father told me stories that I felt like it gave me not just a taste of his life but a world that allowed me to better understand why he lost his voice. Why in some ways he refused to ever grieve again. And in that sense I would say um and this may sound stark: he was a good man in so many ways but in terms of fathering me, I got fathered uh in about four hours of my relationship with my dad. And I can’t put words to that without grief, but also such a sense of I’m glad after decades of being his son that I got four hours and four hours is not enough, but it was good. And so to hold that interplay of, oh my gosh. Um you know, there will be a day that I believe he will father me and I will be in one sense free to be fathered. Um but that day only has the small four grapes of taste when the banquet that I desired, and he actually set the possibility that it really could have occurred before. So there was grief and anger, but also a deep, deep sense of, oh, this is good to have. So, I think it’s so important to underscore grief without gratitude, you know, is a refusal to honor how, you know, you put it so well, how even this brokenness has been part of shaping us to become who we’re meant to be. But the other side is all gratitude, and no grief. I think that is, you know, in some ways, uh you know, I hope it’s not a cheap shot, but it’s what I experienced with a whole lot of evangelicals who love Jesus and do love Jesus, but it’s like God is good, God is good. God is always good and it’s like, uh huh, yeah, I believe that, but his Son who happens to be the second member of the Trinity cried out, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? So even in goodness, there’s something about being able to struggle and to grieve. Otherwise, it’s a form of idealization, that really is just another form of idolatry.

Rachael: And quite frankly, I think for all of us, it’s just dishonoring to what is true of who we are and the ways we’re being redeemed and made whole. Because we all need forgiveness. So if there’s no place to even begin to name where you have been in processes of forgiveness with your family processes of repair. Well, you know, I think then then there’s such missed opportunities for real connection. If it’s the only way to be together is that everyone has to agree in some ways to the idolatry to not, you know, to not have any negative experiences, then you don’t actually really get to bring yourself to that relationship. So, and you know, I think it’s again, do we believe in a God who promises to bring beauty from our ashes and not in a utilitarian, I’ll bring you suffering so that I can bring beauty for your ashes. But this promise that that is happening on our behalf and on behalf of our families. So.

Dan: Well, a little aside, I just had dinner last night with my oldest daughter, Annie and uh, this was a birthday present. She, we agreed to meet, she would take me out to eat and pay for it, which that’s fabulous. I love that, you know, getting any, getting any compensation for years, just symbolic. You know, it’s not trying to create recompense is just a nice taste. But what we decided to do was to read a book together and engage the book over dinner and anything else that we wanted to talk about. And she said, I want the first book to be your new book, Redeeming Heartache. And darn it. She read the book. I didn’t actually, I did, I didn’t think she would, but there are a number of stories that I tell in the book that apparently she’s not heard before. And uh and she brought up particularly one of me being humiliated in fourth grade with a pair of madras shorts, blah, blah, blah. And she goes, I started thinking about you as a 4th grader and I about lost it. Like just that sentence alone of I thought about your dad as a 4th grader and I started tearing up immediately and she goes, do you want me to say more? Are you worried about weeping at this dinner? Like, come on girl. I mean, yeah, sure. So stepping into the idea that how do we look at our own parents and family of origin without doing the two… you know, grief without gratitude, gratitude without grief. I think we have to begin with the reality that our parents are sinners, just like at least I am. But that intersection of lust and anger got played out uh in some form, we don’t excuse sin. Uh the only framework for dealing with sin is forgiveness, but we also can’t forgive what we don’t name. And so our parents ate us. Uh that’s the notion of lust? It’s not just sexual, in fact, primarily it’s any desire that’s gone mad uh in that sense of lust is always a form of idolatry. I’m filling myself with something of what you can offer me. And anger is a vengeance to make someone pay for having disappointed or failed to satisfy in the way that I demand. So in that sense, Jesus ups the ante with regard to our family, uh, to say, oh yeah, you were born into a family of adulterers and murderers, so have a good Thanksgiving.

Rachael: Yeah, Oh, man, that’s really true, isn’t it? That Jesus really does say that, uh, and understand this is part of our reality. So how do we then begin to, you know, understand this relationship between grief and gratitude as it’s connected in many ways to, as you’re saying, like, our family of origin and to brokenness to the brokenness in our family of origin.

Dan: Yeah, I’m waiting for you to answer.

Rachael: I don’t want to. Let’s go back to the story with Annie. Because that was really sweet.

Dan: Yeah, it really was. But but when, when one of the things she said was you spent, at least in this story, um, a lot of time being humiliated. Um, but then she said, but your mom was absorptive. So how, you know, you’ve been humiliated, but you were you were fodder for her emptiness. And how how did you, how did you live? And I looked at her and I said, Annie, come on girl. You know. She goes, well, you are somewhat adversarial

Rachael: Somewhat.

Dan: You’re not terribly afraid of conflict. I am, but it doesn’t look that way. And you you’ve, you’ve been a being who’s taken a lot of risks and, and, and she was brilliant when she said, this is the way you kept your mother away. And you know that first of all that, she’s thinking about me as 4th grader and then she’s able to articulate, yeah, I can see patterns today that have come out of the broken milieu of a very lustful woman who who devoured you and a father who in some ways was too afraid to wreak revenge, but did take revenge by a form of absence. But as we kept talking, it’s not like, oh, but let’s look for the silver lining. It’s also, you know, uh, I always knew I could trust you to deal with conflict. In fact, there were times where I couldn’t tell you of things going on in my life because I was afraid you’d go shoot someone. Well, that’s another side of the failure. But I think if we begin to again go back to these categories of; you are broken and you’re beautiful and and it isn’t two separable realities that you can easily distinguish. Its that in so many ways you’ve got so much to be grateful for, even in the failure of lust and anger because in so many ways that was the soil that you came out of. That’s both as your parents, broken and beautiful –– so are you broken and beautiful. And we can grieve the brokenness because it will one day be fully restored. But do you have a place to bless, which is the word gratitude, are you grateful for who you became in that soil? And yes, it’s complex and it’s not one or the other is in some sense grief and laughter virtually in one fell swoop.

Rachael: Yeah. So when we’re talking about this brokenness and beauty and places where grief and gratitude, you know, is intersecting in our family of origin. And thinking in particular around how we make sense of the harm we’ve experienced in our families. You know, you’ve brought up these categories of lust and anger. You’ve named lust. You know, to help us get beyond kind of where we go with it right away. Is this sense of absorption. Um being used? You’ve named anger as this reality of vengeance and punishment. Right? So how do how do we begin to get into the soil and grieve? The harm that’s happened and begin to name with more particularity, the gratitude we can have for one though, that brokenness is me beautiful is made new. How it actually does give us tremendous gifts in this world. Um I would love to hear you put a few more words to what is true of, of absorption and vengeance, particularly in the, in our families.

Dan: Well it I think it’s a mouthful for people to think about sitting at the Thanksgiving day meal and going hi mom and dad! Killer. Whore. Those are strong words. But if we can see the reality in our own life without being blinded to the reality and others, then in some sense, I think what it brings is the humility of I need grace. I just… you need grace, we need grace, we need in one sense the rescue of God. Um, and look there are people going to be hearing this where um the harm your parents did uh ain’t in the realm of sort of the normal fare, the harm has been so egregious and wicked If not outright evil and I don’t want to, shall we say leaven that by saying, Oh we’re all sinners and indeed we are. This is how the language of scripture is in one sense like watching somebody play tennis like the ball’s got to just keep going across the net, I’m a sinner and yet there’s been harm done uh to me and mine to others that’s not the same. So if we can step back and let that differentiation not take away the commonality. So in that commonality to not take away the differentiation and then to be able to go, but in that leavening of we all need grace, it puts me at least in a position to be able to say as I was speaking earlier, so grateful I had four hours but I’m angry, I’m angry that my father refused to engage and yet the stories of what he suffered in World War Two and after help me be able, not excusing, but to be able to say this is a context, to understand his own trauma and suffering with greater clarity. So I think in that sense, any time I’m in a position of being able to name lust and anger, especially with regard to my family of origin. It puts me in the position of the simultaneity of being both harmed but also harming and even if they’re not parallel, there’s enough to be able to say, am I aware of the grace that I need? But also the grace I’ve been given. Um that allows me to begin to look at the portions of where I know my brokenness as a at times angry, risk-taking intimidating human being, has also been really used for good. So can I hold that even in grief there has been some movement. Even my sin has been useful. I don’t want to fail to profit. But even in that there’s something about God’s commitment to use even cacophony to orchestrate something in the realm of glory. Uh it should bring a sense of almost shock. Like I’ve been used. I can be used even as broken as I am. That’s a real… I mean, I just feel grateful even saying it out loud. I think vengeance is harder though. Um when we’ve had people in our family who uh it to some degree of consciousness have wanted to silence us uh to hurt, to hurt us. How do we actually find any sense of gratitude in that and to put simply, I think um it creates a defiance, even if the defiance is subtle or very overt. You know, when you are facing injustice and that’s what vengeance is, it’s a form of deep injustice. There’s something inside that rises up and goes hell, no. Uh and that deep sense of I will stand against that which is not meant to be. Uh it’s a really beautiful part of um protest. So we’re you have been able to move into a “hell no” protest a defiance that says I will not let you take me under, I will not let you take my breath away. You know and as I think about your lovely life, my dear friend, you’re defiance is stunning.

Rachael: Yeah, I mean, I I think that that those places of defiance against being bound by less than anger, whether that’s in our families, in our communities, in our culture, in our country. Um I think it is where we join Jesus in the groaning for justice and mercy. And so where we can… and I think it is grief that actually invites us into these places where we have been absorbed, where we have experienced vengeance. That really is not even about us, like it might be being enacted upon us in our family of origin, but it’s rarely actually about us. Grief of these places can actually liberate us to a different kind of freedom that we really can’t and shouldn’t be anyone’s God. Where where absorption has tried to say, I need you to be my life like we are human sized and we actually are not, Jesus has taken on the powers of sin and death. Jesus has taken on all cursing, Jesus has taken on all burdens. We are not bound by other people’s vengeance and we are not bound to join them in their vengeance. And so I think that’s where we get into this kind of why are we connecting grief and gratitude? What is the invitation with grief when we think about our family of origin, that may be, provides a different path to dealing with our parent’s harm?

Dan: Well, uh, this is where I’m going to turn back to you in terms of the intersection of clean versus dirty pain.

Rachael: Well, I mean, even that language of clean pain and dirty pain is coming out of Resmaa Menakem’s comes work on My Grandmother’s Hands, where he is talking about trauma and specifically racialized trauma of our bodies and how that plays out. And this notion that we actually have to differentiate between clean pain and dirty pain and grief invites us to, I would say, more of the possibility of clean pain. It’s a restorative pain, it’s a pain that actually is a part of a process that has the capacity to bring us home to our bodies, to give us imagination for what repair can look like, even if the people we need to repair with are no longer living or are not capable of providing that repair. Whereas dirty pain actually comes when we refuse to enter grief. So we’re guarded with all of our coping mechanisms that try to keep us from experiencing pain, but we actually just kind of recreate pain after pain after pain because to avoid pain like that, you actually have to become someone who harms other people and even in your denial of that. So I think that the… continue to grieve what we have suffered. To grieve the broken relationship. To grieve, brokenness invites us to begin to not be bound by that brokenness and to see where redemption is possible, again, whether there’s repair of relationship or not.

Dan: Indeed, so as we focus finally on like your thanksgiving day meal, I’m not sure it’s the best time to talk about lust and anger and adultery and murder. But you can go a little further than I’m so grateful that God had forgiven me. It might be a sentence like I’m so grateful as our family knows, I can be fearful and make a lot of demands and I’m grateful not only to God, but I’m grateful to you family for not only knowing that, but engaging that with me. I want to be a better man. So our hope for you with regard to this is like a sentence. Maybe two. That allows you to enter into this really remarkable ritual of holding Thanksgiving as the gift of being able to own the goodness of what we have been given and the goodness of whom we’re with. Can we indeed find a way to bring the reality of grief into a conversation into public statements around the table? In a way that people can now begin to go, what what what did he say? Uh that would be a remarkable turkey for people to eat.

Rachael: May it be so.