Grief & Gratitude in Partnerships and Parenting

How do we open ourselves up to greater grief – and the potential for greater gratitude – with our spouses, partners, children and closest friends? Join Dan and Rachael as they explore grief and gratitude in the midst of the most intimate relationships.

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Episode Transcript

Dan: Yeah, Rachael. Let’s just admit that dealing with grief and gratitude with regard to our spouses, our partners, our children. This is another one of those. I want to step back and go, why don’t you just take this? And… ‘Cause what we’re really beginning to talk about is how we allow our own hearts to enter into disappointment and to some degree disillusionment in a way that opens our heart to greater grief, but also the potential for greater gratitude. So to step back and to say what we’ve attempted to cover is that grief much like a colander sifts out sorrow and leaves with it in so many ways the substance of our heart being more open or at least the potential to be more open because grief is a form of emptying. But it also moves us forward in one sense seeking that which our hearts are most meant for and therefore being open to receiving uh, from others, ultimately from the goodness of God, what our hearts most deeply desire. So we’re not going to reconstitute everything that we’ve underscored regarding grief and gratitude. But just to say, where does this topic, grief and gratitude particularly with regard to our families, not family of origin. We’ve already, shall we say – walked through that valley, but with regard to the families were currently in. That this could be roommates, could be deep friendships, but also could be our family. 

Rachael: Yeah, Well, I mean I think just a reminder of where we were in our last podcast with that family of origin reality and how we’re so deeply shaped by the harm we’ve experienced by primary care providers. It feels obvious to say that of course that pain how that shaped us, how we relate is certainly playing out in our current primary relationship. So I love how you named for some that might be a good community of friends that you’re doing life with and you’re staying in those hard places where you’ve moved past the kind of honeymoon period of friendship or the honeymoon period of a marriage or in many ways even the honeymoon period of parenting, which I’m not sure how long that one lasts. Um maybe. And again, parenting can look like a lot of different things. And so I think just making that reminder that our past harm, our past hurt, our past heartache is certainly playing out in our primary current relationships. And so when I think about grief and gratitude in our most intimate relationships. Um, I think it is some of the most courageous and vulnerable work because it’s one thing to go back and deal with past harm in the midst of a context that yes, you might still be in good close relationship with your family of origin, but likely unless your circumstances are different, you’re not in a day in day out lived reality. Some people might, I know, especially in seasons like COVID, there’s been families that have moved back in together. So that might be your reality. Um, but when you’re thinking about a partner or spouse or close friend or a child, these are some of the most vulnerable places of the heart. Um, and I’ve heard you so often say Dan that in many ways contempt is the enemy of love. And I think in many ways we’re talking about how do we move to a more honoring integrated and what we’re meant for kind of engagement in the places where we have known profound disappointment and or been the one who has brought profound disappointment. 

Dan: Oh, you’ve got to bring that up. Indeed, it’s not possible to only live on one side of the street, but if we can start again by saying, look, all our primary intimate relationships are to some degree, a effort to seek Eden, if not to actually demand that my spouse heal me. Now, I didn’t have that in my head as a 24-year-old man waiting for the glorious moment that Becky would walk down the aisle. I did not look at her and go salvation! Particularly from my unique mother. Uh, but the fact is, it would have had so much more integrity. You know, if as she’s walking down, if I cried out, save me or you will save me. And the reality is that in some ways our children and our deepest friendships are all an effort, both righteously, but often with this with illusions, uh, an effort to find my way back into Eden. It’s not wrong to desire Eden and what Eden holds for us, but where we make it a demand or an unwitting goal, then we’ve got some other complications to address. 

Rachael: So when I hear you saying you know, trying to get back to Eden something, I think about it. It’s what you’re alluding to and being saved by a partner saved by children is this sense of being perfectly loved. Or maybe having a child reflect back to us that we are perfectly capable of loving perfectly and cannot bear when they let us know you aren’t loving perfectly. Um, and so yeah, that sense of we are constantly trying to work out, um look for redemption from our past in our current relationships and we long for that experience of being loved without brokenness. Being loved without failure. Being loved without fear.

Dan: Well, sometimes I think we should be videoing this. Other times I’m really grateful we don’t, but if I can just ask as you began to talk what what was on your face? 

Rachael: Which… What time? 

Dan: Just just as you began, after I finished, there was a particular look I want to see if we can capture. 

Rachael: I’m not sure which one. 

Dan: Well, I’ll tell you at least see if it fits. You were laughing, but it wasn’t mockery. It was a kind of a full recognition of this is both foolish but so honorable. 

Rachael: Well, I just think our desires, you name this. Our desires are so good. So we’re not saying that you need to feel shame about these desires. But I think any of us who, well, I think we just all have to be honest that in many ways our dreams have to die. Our dreams for that perfect love um in the here and now on this side of eternity. Um it’s not a cynical giving our heart over that will never taste goodness. Um but it is a reckoning with the reality that to love is in many ways to have your heart broken and to be disappointed and to have to face choices again and again and again, whether or not you’re willing to let your desire remain and come back to the table. So I think that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about grief and gratitude in the midst of these most intimate relationships because they are the ones that reflect back to us most clearly and most consistently. And I think that’s where my laughter comes from. It’s part of my own, my own need to bless my desire. Both, so that’s what I want. But I think also as a two on the enneagram, the kind of prideful um illusions as you spoke about that if I just work hard enough, I can love perfectly and how exhausting that is. 

Dan: Again, it kills love to have to perfect it. And yet that sense, particularly for an enneagram two different than an enneagram eight will put so much demand and pressure and therefore demands and pressure killed desire. But also disappointment. Again, I want to be real careful here. I’m not saying disappointment is the enemy, but so often when you feel disappointed in a child or a spouse or a good friend, the natural result is exactly what you just said. We kill the desire. We lower our… if I’ve heard the phrase well you just need to have more reasonable expectations. Yeah, reasonable like and you pray the Lord’s prayer for heaven on this earth, that’s fairly unreasonable. So I mean the task is to keep coming back to this category of, well can I let my disappointment actually open the door to grief. And for many people I think disappointment masquerades as grief so that you’re able to hold that disappointment with resentment and in some sense, call that the grief that empties but wherever there is resentment or a loss of desire, it’s not grief and that will not move our hearts to gratitude. To that emptying and to that movement. So the task if we can just say is can we let disappointment be engaged in a way that exposes uh the far deeper desire. I mean, we are currently in California visiting my daughter and son-in-law and two granddaughters. And it has been such a sweet holiday experience. And yet I forget things. I am so perennially forgetful. So we end up somewhere and Becky goes, she wants to pay for the meal, which is a very grand parenting thing to do. And it’s like, she’s like nudging me as the bills coming, like you’re gonna cover. It’s like, oh yeah, absolutely. Uh yeah, I didn’t bring my wallet. So this look in her eye of what? Do I have to trust you? Do. I have to double check everything that’s in your pockets. Now, here’s my point. That’s what I perceive. It’s not what’s there. She is disappointed, but I’m infusing her disappointment with my contempt for myself, which then, strange as I am, allows me to feel very angry at her for holding me and contempt. Well, she’s not holding me in contempt. I’m holding myself in contempt and blaming her for it. That then justifies being able to be surly with a comment like, well, I’ll pay him back. Well, all that to then get to this point. Yeah, this is not entering grief because wherever resentment, contempt, or that justification, uh it allows us to not enter into. I cost my wife a lot uh and can there be grief for that without contempt. Just grief. Um and also grief that opens the door to the possibility of looking at her face realizing, oh my goodness, what a blessed man I am that right now she does have a quizzical, uh somewhat bewildered but nonetheless non contemptuous look on her face, offering me grace. But also consequences. Like I will ask you the next time we go out. All that to say it’s possible for grief and gratitude to actually grow together, but not without honesty and to some degree, not without a level of conversation between you and the people that you’re engaging with. So whatever grief cats filled with resentment, there will be a demand. And that demand will keep you from true grief, but inevitably will keep you from the truer gratitude one. 

Rachael: I mean, let’s just be honest, that kind of demand will actually keep you from giving and receiving love. Which is what we’re talking about, right? Because if there’s a demand and usually that demand is that someone get it right and get it perfect. Um which is a setup for a reenactment of disappointment, which then just adds to your resentment, which then just ups the ante of the demand. And then there is that paralyzing bind of I don’t actually know how to move towards you because I know I’m being set up for failure and therefore being set up for more resentment. And at some point either someone has to just decide that that’s all they’re going to get and that’s fine or a refusal to move towards you because they don’t want to keep getting cut. And um, and I think there has to be a lot of grace and compassion for how we get into these places because they are an attempt to protect ourselves from grief. And I love how you’re naming there is an invitation to enter grief that we have disappointed someone or that we have been disappointed, but that grief will often open the heart to a different kind of curiosity. Um, instead of making assumptions like you named. Instead of assuming in our own protective stance, this is what someone feels towards me, usually because we’re projecting what we feel about ourselves onto someone else. And then there’s almost this double invitation to a deeper grief of our past, because often when we have such strong reactions to being disappointed or two disappointing others there so in-storied. And when there can be that disruption of the resentment that invites the heart to curiosity, there can be that kind of engagement that takes us deeper into love, deeper into understanding of how this came to be a familiar kind of disappointment. And it doesn’t always work out like it’s not always like now I feel grief, so now let’s have a conversation and now let’s learn more about each other. It’s often a labor to make space to be curious to return to a question when maybe the tensions have eased a little bit. So it’s certainly more of a dance. But there is a possibility to disrupt demand. Um but it’s not going to come in the absence of grief. Um and there, you know, it’s tricky because there is a grief like you said, that is actually a masquerade and there’s a grief that is a true reform of repentance. Sometimes, finding the difference between the two can be the tricky part. 

Dan: Yeah. How do you do that? How would you put words to the difference between masquerade? 

Rachael: Yeah. I mean, I had a recent experience um with my partner and husband where um, you know, I’m always asking him to share his interior world with me because we’re very different people. I’m more of like my interior world is out there. I’m verbally processing whether you want it or not. It’s just it’s coming out. And so my work is to, you know, contain and and and he actually loves knowing how I’m doing what I’m thinking. And so, you know, I’m always inviting him like share with me more. And we were having a conversation where he was sharing with me some of the anxiety he has and it came out kind of fragmented because that’s what happens with anxiety and instead of being able to make space for that and and and contained well to be big enough for his anxiety. I spun off into my own anxiety because of this anxiety. And in some ways it was like a mm kind of using my anxiety to feel disappointed that the conversation had taken an anxious turn. When I had literally I just asked him to share with me what he was… what some of the stresses he was holding within the week. Which then sets up for us, a very familiar reenactment of him saying you ask me to share my interior world. But then when I do, I end up having to take care of you and it feels like there’s not enough space for me and that doesn’t feel good. And again, after two hours of silence, like a loud both of us in a standoff of silence and some angry words that again could have been phrased like, well I’m just mad at myself but I’m not actually entering the grief to be able to name: I feel tremendous shame that I did the thing I know actually reinforces to you, I can’t bear your heartache, I can’t bear and hold and make space for where you need to be small. And I wish that wasn’t I wish that had not happened because it actually grieves me that I communicated to you, you don’t get to take up space here. And so there was a difference there was a shift which I think invited us both to bring ourselves and for me to repent to be able to say, I can name, that I failed here. There was a failure of love for me here and and then and to still sit in the mystery that those kinds of dynamics are not going to just disappear overnight, that’s more work I get to be committed to and work will get to be committed to. But it did lead to that entrance into grief, into repentance, into a loosening of demand, both on myself and on him. Um, did open the door to a deeper gratitude that although we didn’t get to a magical resolve, that there was an opportunity to be seen and known more deeply and the possibility that things could look differently in the future. That that doesn’t have to be the only way um, stress or anxiety or making space with each other has to happen. But I did not want to, I did not want to integrate and I worked really hard to just stay angry and irritated. 

Dan: Well, having been with you a few days over the last few decades, you know, I have not encountered that quite the way Michael might have. But you know, when shall we say volatile personalities like, the two of us, begin to engage, there’s drama, there’s fire. There’s also so it’s very easy for a partner to feel very justified pulling away shutting down or when we feel hurt to do that. And the phrase that I think is so important to come back to is that repentance is a loosening of desire. There’s one thing for disappointment to open the door to disillusionment. And therefore in some sense, dreams need to die. But if we can put it this way and it will sound violent and there is some degree of it: Repentance is a killing of our demand and an ownership. The demand is violent and opposed and cannot be justified even though Eden and the desire for it is always legitimate. So, for you to repent and that loosening of demand, I’m assuming, uh, softened your face. The words opened the door to communication. Therefore the potential for communion. Is that is that fair? 

Rachael: Yeah, very fair. 

Dan: So what happened? 

Rachael: I mean, I kind of already told you, 

Dan: How did how did how did Michael engage at that point? 

Rachael: Yeah, I mean, again, it took, it took, uh, you know, there’s always that saying like, don’t go to bed angry. I actually think that’s that’s a literal interpretation of a text that is not always helpful. There was a whole night of sleep before there was a return because it took me that long actually to locate myself and to let grief become more of an entrance into a softening. Um, to be able to turn my face back to him to say, I actually do want to hear more how that dynamic impacted you. I want to hear more from you. And I know based on what just happened that’s actually inviting you to risk, that’s inviting you to risk it happening again. Um, and so it just led to a really honest conversation about his desire both to not add more stress to my life to burden me. Um but also to have companionship in those places where he stressed which he actually very generously offers to me. And so it actually led to a deeper getting to know each other and to understanding how we process and how we think and where those things are familiar and connected to other stories in our lives. Um mm and again it didn’t lead to like a two or three step problem solving practical process. But I think a deeper commitment, at least on my part, to catch myself when and to be able to say like to maybe have more wisdom if I’m in a moment where I actually can’t bear more stress or anxiety to have more wisdom to not ask someone to share with me, there’s if I don’t have space for it. So again it didn’t feel like it led to very rigid determination of how then we’re going to engage and what are the rules of engagement but a deeper commitment to love each other well and to have more awareness around ways that we might trigger each other. Um and again it was such a simple, I think that why I bring up is it was such a simple small engagement that just held a world of debris and the only way to get that. Yeah, was for there to be a tenderness, but also a strength. 

Dan: Well that’s softening on your part is so inviting. It just, it’s restorative and I don’t ever want to say let us fail. So that greater good can occur. And yet that’s Paul’s claim in Romans six shall we send so Grace abounds And he uses the greek word mē genoito, may it never be. Yet. Uh, as sin abounds Grace abounds more. Like Becky. And I after the wallet issue, uh, where we went with our kids to the largest flea market in the cosmos. Uh, it’s Pasadena and they take the Rose bowl and they practically use the entire outside of the stadium to bring in all the excess debris purchased and then brought back. And so we’re walking by this one and it’s like, they’ve got like winter stuff like a coat and it had, and I don’t know if you can help me here, but it’s like kids when they’re like three or four that have gloves, but the kids are going to lose the gloves. So they have something that clips onto the end of the coat that clips onto the glove. I don’t know what to call that. Like a a clip. It’s a clip. So whatever clip and we’re walking by that, I Becky looks at it. And she goes, oh maybe we could get one of those for your wallet and this is so dangerous. She’s mocking me. But it’s so kind, it’s so playful and frankly it’s so inviting and in that moment we’re laughing uh because they were only like a buck and I really want to get them, but I didn’t have any cash in my wallet and they didn’t take credit cards. Nevertheless, uh it was enough just to be able to hold this intersection of yes, there is harm not significant, but it’s a burden for her and simultaneously it was hilarious. So our ability to laugh often comes within that framework that our hearts have known sorrow, but it is not the end. It will not be the end. Uh simply the phrase we’ve used 1000 times, Death does not get the final word. And when there is that what I want to call normalization that we aren’t unique in our grief and our gratitude. This is part and parcel of every relationship. It should not be viewed as, What are you all talking about? Uh if this is not part of your existence, then you’ve got a perfect past in a perfect present. Then what in the name of God are you listening to this podcast for? But if you don’t, then the reality is this is going to be an opportunity to honor the heartache with mercy which is attunement and strength, which is the capacity for containment. and Becky’s laughter pointing it out was sweet but playful and I felt a little bit of that piercing, but mostly laughter and that’s what I want for people to be able to hold the intersection of death and resurrection. I need mercy whenever we go out, but I also need strength to be in a position to go look to do this podcast. I took all my wallet, everything out of my pocket, but because we’re still here, we’re going to go out this afternoon, it’s going in and yes, I went to a chase free money machine and got a few dollars in case there’s another object to be purchased. 

Rachael: I love that. It’s a good act of repentance um before we kind of come to a close, I think it would be really helpful to put a few more words to what does grief and gratitude… How do we grow grief and gratitude um with our children or in our parenting or primary care provider relationships. Whether you’re an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent um or an honorary aunt and uncle who’s in good relationship with children because I think it’s a little different in how we hold grief and gratitude when there is a power differential. So when I think about the role of grief with kids, um and parenting, where I’ve disappointed them or where they’re, you know, disappointing me, but I’m thinking more specifically around um when a child is mirroring back to reflecting back to you have really disappointed me and they’re kind of calling you out on your own idolatry, Your own demand of them. Um, how do we enter grief? Because I’ll just say this. I think a lot of people have experienced as children that their parents can enter sorrow but the sorrow is often a, well I can’t bear your disappointment so now make me feel okay. So what does honoring grief look like in that kind of dynamic? 

Dan: Are you asking you want me to talk? I want to hear your brilliant thoughts because as hard as it is to deal with partners, I think once you open the door to children, whether they are as my children are one in her forties and the other in the mid to late thirties, let’s just say, I feel, I feel it, my body. The sense of disappointing them of, of again, creating a context where there’s grief. I mean for me, one of the major stories of my life is my son who chose not to go to college. And there were a whole host of things that came, including I will not support you and his response, I know that uh, and I had plans to be able to financially care for myself. And in this awful interaction at one point, he said college for you dad as part of your idolatry and I will not serve false gods on your behalf. And I remember that day, uh, like yesterday and it was one of the most piercing truths spoken to me. There are a few others, but uh I was laid low and I’m not a mature man uh and I didn’t handle the moment well, I didn’t handle weeks afterwards well, but his searing truth uh opened up a whole new realm for me to not only owed that with him, But have a different kind of relationship with him than we had ever had at that point. And it’s continued for I think that’s been about 16 years ago. And uh that sweet, horrible moment of allowing a child to name, even when again in this case it was just totally true. I think there are a lot of settings in which a child, so they got about 10% truth, 

Rachael: But it’s their truth. 

Dan: But let’s put it this way, 10% is still truth. So for us as a parent to own what we can own and in some sense as supposedly the more mature to actually let their truth not shape and guide but actually expose and and fight. That opens up a possibility for I’m still grieved. Uh my son is an iron worker in Union 86 in Seattle and I could not be more proud of him. Uh and yet looking back to those days and going, uh there are scars that I can never never erase, but we’re good even with those scars. So letting your children be reflections of the face of God, the truth of God but also the invitation of God to humility and to honor, uh, that changes I think the dynamic to be able to say, I don’t think there’s any grief I feel in this life more then how I’ve hurt my children. But the fact that my children fiercely love me and Becky, I think it’s one of the greatest honors, you know, whatever awards one might find favor from your children, especially adult children. Uh, it’s undeserved. Uh, and it’s a gift unlike anything I’ve known. 

Rachael: Mm thank you Dan. I thought was a very tender, um, vulnerable and yet actually, um, and in it’s redemptive reality is a very beautiful story. Even as you said, it holds many scars and I think that that’s one of the greatest growth edges of allowing grief and gratitude to be present in parent child relationships. Is that capacity as you said, to honor, hold on to yourself to make space for even 10% truth telling and to be broken by the ways in which even in our, good intentions to love well that sometimes we miss and we fail. And as you already named that death never has to be the end of the story and there’s always a possibility of repair of making things right. Um, and so I love, you actually have words here in our notes, don’t triage or merely resolve their grief. Make space for it to actually be engaged with honor. Don’t ask them to forgive you too soon or um, let it be something that actually gets to grow your relationship, grow deeper trust and build character over time. And I think that same nature of honoring heartache with mercy and strength. Um but yeah, I like, I like your added dose of with an extra dose of humility, it is really necessary. So and someday we’ll have to talk more about just some of the nuances because I think even with step-parenting, these places of grief and gratitude just have layers of complexity that require kind of maturity daily. That brings me to my knees to say Jesus, make me a more mature woman, make me a more mature woman. So

Dan: Is that not the best way to end this whole series to simply say that’s what grief is meant to prompt. A hunger for Eden not just a resolve of conflict and heartache, but a sense of there will be a day that I am fully who I meant to be, I will be me. I will be me. And that is when I see him, then I will be as he is. And grief is meant to in some sense move us toward that hunger of becoming fully who we are as mature men, women and therefore capable as you put it so well earlier, truly being able to love to give and receive and for that to be endless without fault, without failure. Without pause, I can, I can sign up for that.