Relationship Between Grief & Gratitude

Dan and Rachael start a new series on grief and gratitude. In this episode, they outline the importance of being open to grieving in order to be open to true gratitude and the ways our bodies naturally respond in both grief and gratitude.

Earlier this year, we invited some guests on the podcast to talk about different types of grief. Listen to the series on grief here.

Episode Transcript

Dan: Yeah. Well as we come into Thanksgiving, it is imperative that we talk about gratitude. I mean honestly there is such a benefit in having a particular epic holiday built around gratitude. And yet it’s almost impossible to address gratitude without also bringing up grief. And as we step into this topic over a few weeks it is going to be very important to see the linkage between grief and gratitude because they are anomalies. We don’t really think of gratitude within the realm of grief. At least I don’t. Do you?

Rachel: I mean, I would say in like a twisted, maybe bad theological way, I think there were some ways of… probably out of good intentions, people trying to help you deal with your suffering by saying like, you know, be grateful because God is transforming. You’re like this is a lesson that will form character. And again, is there some truth that we, there is a way that we get to be grateful for the transformation that does come when we are able to enter grief? Like yes, in the larger scheme of things. But it was often used as a way to kind of say, get over your, get over your sadness, get over your heartache, you should be grateful or you should be grateful because you’re not suffering as bad as other people in the world. So if we’ve and gratitude are linked, they are linked in ways that actually are a denial or a huge dishonoring of your grief, a minimization of it, a mockery of it or a like a spiritual bypassing of it, if you will, so to speak.

Dan: Uh I can feel it, I can feel it in my own body right now. Like not too terribly long ago, I won’t even imply who or what context it was spoken. But somebody I know said to me it could be worse and there was something in me that went, yeah, it could be worse for you right now, given the silliness of that sentence. Again, we’re back to, it is so easy to compare suffering and therefore minimize the reality of our own heartache. And so wherever gratitude becomes a way of escaping the reality of grief, it’s it’s a flight from, not the entry in, and I’m all for I’m not really for the phrase turning lemons into lemonade, but that’s that same attendance to not want to step into the nature of what grief holds for us personally. But as we begin to think a little bit, uh, and we’re going to be doing this over the category of the body, the category of our family of origin and then um our families, our spouses, our partners, our children; people who are close to us, really close to us. So we want we want to think this through well as we come into the thanksgiving season, but just again, do a bit of launching here, how do you see the relationship Rachel between your own experience of grief and what it has the potential to open our heart to with regard to gratitude?

Rachel: Well, I mean as you, as you and I have talked about this over long seasons… and you know, it’s hard cause we might need to talk a little bit about what we mean by grief. Because, all these ideas are like the stages of grief and what do we mean by grief? So when I think about grief, I think probably more in the category of lament, like where there is and sometimes expressions of anger, sometimes expressions of deep, profound sorrow. But those places where we would say I am my my soul is downcast. I like that word heartache, there is an ache and grief is so bodily, it’s not something we think about in our brain, it is such a visceral embodied expression. Whether you’re a crier or not, you don’t have to cry to be experiencing grief, but we often think of tears being associated with grief. And certainly I think we would say that there is some distinction/differentiation between grief and depression. You know where your biochemicals are depressed. When I think about grief, I think about the way that it honors our life, it honors what we’re made for. And because when we’re grieving we’re grieving the loss of life. We’re grieving the loss of connection. We’re grieving, sometimes we grieve in seasons of profound trauma. We grieve in communal ways. I think of grief as joining that groaning, that groaning spirit of God that is laboring like for something more. And so it took me a long time, I think because of what I said about gratitude, kind of being like you should be thankful for your suffering because God’s going to use it for good. But that again, being a, hey, I don’t want to engage your suffering, I want to gauge your grief, like quit crying, I’ll give you something to cry about. And so I think I found the more there has been space to be honest about my grief to tend to it. To actually believe and encounter God meeting me in the deep that sense of deep crying out to deep um I think it has led to profound transformation and not just because not grieving for the sake of grieving, but when there is a way to honor why that grief is there and an invitation to return to believe there will be more goodness of God in the land of the living.

Dan: Well, let me sit back and say look, there are three kinds of tears: basal, reactive and emotional. Basal is just the normal wetness your eyes need. Reactive as tears that come because like, you know, a projectile has smacked your eye of some small sort, you need to be able to get it out. But emotional tears… So I want to, I don’t want to go too far before we come back to say, the nature of grief is this sense of deep chasm. You know, when I think of grief, it is something I fall into. It is a taking in and in that taking in this will sound I think a little too intellectual, but it’s a… you’re entering into the discrepancy between what is and what was meant to be. And that sense of sometimes the gap between those two… the chasm between those two is fairly small. It is hard, but it’s not, you know, I can feel a kind of, a shoot, a sigh. But there are moments where my body has taken over, been taken over with a kind of wailing. I would say not often enough. But I know what it is to feel like I can’t stand. Literally, my feet are taken out from under me and there is a flood. So what I would say is if there’s grief with no tears, hardly ever, there’s something already operating to in one sense, make your life more comfortable in a desert. So the nature of grief is, you’ve talked about this, I’ve learned so much from you in terms of Romans 8 that groaning inwardly. Even as we wait expectantly, that’s the nature of hope. In some sense, grief is always deeply connected to hope or the absence of in the moment and that tension between what is and what’s meant to be. The greater the gap, the deeper the grief, the deeper the lament, the mourning that Romans 8 takes us to.

Rachel: And I was just going to say that if people are thinking, I just really need to reflect more on this. We did do a podcast series earlier this year on grief where we go much more deep deeply into these categories in a variety of ways. So I would encourage you to go take a listen. We do a deep dive into grief and different ways that we grieve and it might be worth revisiting as we enter this conversation.

Dan: And that was with Mary Ellen Owens.

Rachel: Ellen Owen.

Dan: Yes, thank you.

And Jeanette White and we also had Michael and Danielle and Rebecca join us to talk about collective grief.

Dan: See, I’m proud that I can remember just one. Yes, it was a really rich series. And so to then hold this reality, how if we can begin to build something of a bridge between lament, grief and gratitude. How do you, do you see that connection?

Rachel: I don’t know, I mean I know it’s connected, but I don’t know if I can build the scaffolding well right now. So I’m gonna turn it back to you.

Dan: And I think I again, I appreciate that in that I don’t either. I’ve got at least a few thoughts of course, but they’re so seldom in the minute when I feel grief… can I also say that gratitude is really nearby. So if the audience is hearing that we’re making the assumption that in those moments of great grief, you’re going to feel gratitude. It’s just not the case. So, the linkage may be a long bridge. But I think the bridge is there and that I find what happens with grief is that there is an emptying, which I’m not usually very fond of, but that sense of something is coming in and I am unable to resolve. I can’t talk myself out of this. It’s overwhelming. I go back to again, the power of tears. The research has been fascinating in terms of emotional tears hold a shift in our biochemicals so that there is actually a significant increase in endorphins as a result, not of the first two kinds of tears. The basal and reactive, but emotional tears bring about a not annulling but a softening. Uh it doesn’t feel that way at least at first. But the body is really designed to bring comfort and this strange category from the Beatitudes: blessed are those who mourn for, they will be comforted. And you know to think in terms of the reality of what what’s referred to as the loose sign in Cafalan change in our tears brings that sense of endorphins, lik thank you God, that was really sweet of you. But then I also know at least with my own way of living in the world, I don’t like tears and I don’t like grief and I don’t let myself often enter into what I’m talking about the disparity, the discrepancy between what is and what was meant to be. I’d rather just fight my way through or just live my way through than to have to hold. But I think this discussion we’ve had and others have had within the calendar center of now there’s something of a bridge we’ve got to make between grief and gratitude and part of that is emptying does in some season set my body, my heart up, for a new possibility of being filled. And that’s where I at least begin to say, I don’t want to vomit tears and be empty. But there is something of a transformation that occurs in being able to let go and in that letting go, whether it be through death of a friend. Death of a vision. Death of a hope. In so many ways grief is almost always about the intersection of death and degradation. Of a loss or a violation. And in that interplay of loss and violation when we enter grief, we are at least now more open to being filled in a way that creates again what you’ve put many words to in Romans 8: the interplay between letting go, grieving but also anticipating.

I mean I think you’re right, that is that that companion to the letting go as grief intensifies our desire that all will be made well for the restoration of all things and in some ways that starts so close to us because it you know that honoring nature of grief honors that we were made for something more and that our cry of our heart, our heartache, is not pathetic, it’s not weak, it’s not ridiculous. It’s not foolish. It is one of the most faithful cries of our heart and when we allow that kind of being open to being filled by something more. And also I think to wanting to participate in a part of that something more, not just passively waiting, but I think that act of groaning. Again, I think that moves us closer to gratitude. I mean I’ve had one of the ways I’m thinking about this is when the pandemic first hit, I was four months into marriage and I was having these experiences of companionship and comfort that I knew I was made for and had longed for for so long. And even the ambiguous grief, I would say of singleness when it’s not what you want. And I would remember these moments where because the pandemic was just this new trauma and reality, the feeling of like death is knocking on the door and I would have these moments of like almost this is gonna sound ridiculous. This is how I’ve worked my whole life with my existential crises, like preemptive grief, like basically having to negotiate, can I bear the gratitude I have for this good man? And these experiences knowing that at least on this side of eternity, I will not get to keep it indefinitely. Can I bear the goodness I know I’m meant for in the land of the living, can I actually receive it? Because gratitude, like a part of gratitude is actually receiving and saying, yes, this is good and my heart is awakened to life in a way that I am tasting… like it is like, a thank you for the taste of the goodness of God in the land of the living. And I would have these moments of almost like, I don’t know. Because the thought of losing this, of tasting this and then losing this, I don’t know if my heart can bear it. And it’s that invitation to go back to, If I don’t have anything to grieve. If my heart is closed, then like maybe that will be easier to survive. And I think that’s just so real for so many of us. So there’s this weird paradoxical way that allowing grief to tell the truth about what we long for, what we’re made for, what we’ve tasted um grows our heart for gratitude, gratitude grows our capacity and heart to grieve.

Dan: Oh, let me underscore I love what you’re saying. I hate it. It’s look, if you’re not open to grieving what I am hearing you say is you will not be open to true gratitude. Both require a move of opening your heart. One to the reality that this is not what we were meant for. And in some sense, gratitude, from my standpoint comes at least to some degree through the gift of rescue. Meaning I am aware I cannot provide for myself and I can not only not provide, but I need someone outside of myself to bring what I can’t create or produce. And in that sense, I’ve got to have a heart to not just acknowledge, I can’t do it and I need somebody, but I think you can do that and not be grateful. In fact, I think you can do that and be cynical. Uh and in some sense indifferent, but when I finally say, and and my heart will receive what I’m given. I may want a banquet, but at the moment, four grapes would be really good. So, so often I think our gratitude is bound to… it’s got to be done, it’s got to be finished. It’s got to be just as I want it to be. Instead of being able to go, I know the disparity between and I want, I want heaven I want with the kingdom of God in its fullest, totally restored would bring me and everyone else. Will I let my heart receive any portion of goodness to be able to take whatever next step. And I think even, you know, your notion of preemptive grief, like I’ve tried that, I’ll just say it, I’ve tried that shit did it work for you?

Rachel: What do you mean?

Dan: Well, it’s not worked for me. Like I’ve… I don’t think there’s anything I fear more in life than Becky’s departure from this earth. And a few morbid moments I’ve tried to like think about what my life will be like in the first day, the first week, and I go, I think I’ve heard pretty clearly from the spirit, like I am not giving you the capacity to enter this yet. But I mean just the reality that death is inevitable is part of the grief of every day. Death. Injustice. That’s what I mean by degradation. Not only lost but violation. That which violates human dignity and honor and goodness, you don’t have to be alive long to have opportunities for grief. Just check your social media page to be able to enter into this, we’re living in grave disparity. So all that to stand back and be able to go without the experience of grief and you made this point, we don’t really honor reality, ourselves, our humanity, or anyone else. With that connection, grief opens the door for us to let go. It intensifies our anticipation of rescue, but it is in some ways almost the truest form of human flourishing in a fallen world. And so the absence of grief and I would go so far as to say the absence of tears uh is a loss of our humanity. And in that gratitude becomes another form of taking in what the goodness of God in the land of the living gives us a chance to experience. If I can put it, how how has that been true in your own engagement with your body?

Rachel: Well, before we go there, I was just going to say for people who maybe find themselves in seasons of profound trauma or like in the midst of current trauma, I hope you would know and I know I can speak for Dan in this way. Like neither of us are saying if you have an absence of tears in this moment where you are in the midst of trauma or an absence of gratitude that you are not human. Because the reality we know of trauma is it often brings fragmentation and numbness and isolation. So, I was thinking actually when you named that about a healing journey, I was in after an assault, after a sexual assault that I experienced and what actually was so scary to me is for about two years in the midst of that post that encounter, I was incredibly numb. And I know enough about trauma, like I know enough about trauma to know, to know why I was numb, but it was one of the first experiences of my adult life, where I wasn’t quite sure how to like get myself back to the land of the living and how to let desire for companionship, to let my body the goodness of my body come back online. I do think Jesus works in mysterious ways. I broke a bone in my foot, a tiny little sesamoid bone got a fracture, I did walk around on it for like six months broken, I got a big lecture about that, that’s a category for another day. But that that involved a very long process of tending to my body to heal and I think part of what the Spirit invited in that season was as I was tending to my foot on like a knee scooter and a medical boot and surgery and going to physical therapy and lifting marbles with my big toe while people are like learning to walk again. You know, just these spaces of just what is going on, I was also invited to do a deeper healing work therapeutically and pastorally like with um with my faith community to to start entering in some ways what I called the wasteland to recover. And there was a slow process. And I remember um kind of just having to relearn again that healing takes time. And I remember Valentine’s day like two years after this happened in the wake of all this labor. I had like the ache and longing for companionship and I had like tears coming down my face. Mm hmm. And when you have known trauma and the absence of grief not because you are not aching but because you are so numb, and there is a return to like a capacity to weep and to feel… it was holy. I mean again it’s this paradox of like am I grateful I was assaulted? No. I’m not. Am I grateful that I had the capacity to feel in my body the heartache that told the truth of like you said the violation that had come. And told me that my desire was still like, it couldn’t actually be eradicated like that. No amount of death, no amount of degradation could actually take away my humanity. It didn’t get to have the final say. And that was a very particular moment where an experience of grief that actually I would say was invited by a community of people who journeyed with me whether they were physical therapist or a therapist or a pastor or even just good friends who knew I was in a season of laboring in the tiniest, most consistent faithful in the small kind of ways to make space for healing to come so that I could connect and be more connected and integrated, be less numb and be able to tolerate it. And so that’s one kind of experience that comes to mind for me.

Dan: Oh, it’s so crucial. And and again, I appreciate that you’re speaking on our behalf because my my my sentence could truly have been uh misheard and let me go back to say there are many times in my life, some very recent of feeling deep harm and feeling grief, but also knowing that there was a part of me too hurt and too angry to actually feel the vulnerability that comes with tears. And it wasn’t something I can just turn on or turn off. But that ability to come back to the body and be able to say I am numb and this is not where I want to be, it’s not where I want to stay, but it is, it is where I am. And I think Becky at one point. Uh, as we were talking through both grief and anger, She said at one point, have you prayed for tears? And it was like, no, no,

Rachel: Get out of my face!

Dan: I’m gonna pray for tears like the body releases fine, but I’m not about. And it was like, oh, come on Dan, what’s the deal here to be able to go… Yes, I need I need to weep. And tears came. But after, in some sense, the travail of dealing with the absence of tears. So we blessed numbness. Just not, shall we say a lifestyle when it becomes existential versus circumstantial, then it becomes an issue. So as we begin to think a little bit more about the body, I come to this passage in 2 Corinthians 4:16. And it sort of takes us into Chapter 5. But let me just say this, Paul says, after a lot of reflection. He writes, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away. Yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” And then he takes that whole notion into Chapter 5 with the earthly tent metaphorically, you know, our body is being destroyed, but we have the promise of an eternal house, a new body. And he speaks of this ambivalence. You know, we want to be clothed, we don’t want to be naked. We groan and we’re burdened. But on the other hand, we indeed know that death will be swallowed up by life. And often at least early on in my christian life, I heard this preached in a way that always made me want to stand up and scream that is like the body is not important. And it’s so crazy because it’s saying our future is not a disembodied state, it’s actually our bodies will be as they were meant to be. And in that sense, the ambivalence, the swallowing up the struggle, the awareness and I think I get to say this a little more than you, but you’re, you know, you’re slowly aging. You know, the bodies decaying and it’s getting more and more obvious. Yet that interplay of decay/renewal and to put it in pretty simple terms: death, resurrection is the deep structural framework, I would almost say, ontological framework, you know. Things die, things come back and they come back often in a very different form than what the death would seem to apply. And so, you know, when we again step back into the question of what have you learned and what have you struggled to grow through with your body’s decaying? And how has that set up some kind of interplay with renewal?

Rachel: It’s like even that question, it’s probably inviting me closer to grief than I’d like to be today. Because I think especially, I mean I mentioned a particular kind of healing journey, but you know, I developed asthma my teenage years and I was a runner, a long distance runner and then it got really bad in college probably because I moved into like a moldy, old dorm that I was probably having like allergic allergy induced asthma, and I struggle with sleep issues and, you know, even just the lungs, I’m thinking with the asthma, like in Chinese medicine, the lungs are one of the main organs that store grief. So I think these places where our body, I mean, you know, we talk about the book, The Body Keeps the Score or just these ways in which the body is inviting us to honor what is true, to honor that. I think for me particularly obviously asthma is a disease of the lungs and I, you know, I think we live in a world that’s broken. So I’m not saying God gave me asthma, it’s not what I’m saying. However, if I’m able to enter the grief that sometimes I can’t breathe and I’m an athlete and I get frustrated and I get angry. But when I can let my heart’s soften to the grief that I was meant to fly. Like I was meant to be able to run and not stop to run and not grow weary. I mean we have this imagery in the text, that’s what we’re meant for. Yet when I can take a step back and honor that I’m also meant to breathe and that’s important and these limitations though, that sometimes they are incredibly frustrating, are also a beautiful part of who I am. And have given me tremendous gifts when I can be faithful to, to honor that this is a part of my story and this is a part of my body. And yeah, sometimes that leads to a lot of grief, and sometimes it leads to a lot of wrestling with God and a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, like I said. But I think these ways were invited to tend differently, to pay attention. I have to listen really closely to my body and pay attention to where it’s getting hard to breathe and move slower. I have to slow down a lot and I know to slow down a lot. And I but I think that where that applies to so many other places. I mean that invitation to slow down, to be faithful in the small.

Dan: When I think about my body’s suffering, I almost always go to kidney stones, three of which have nearly killed me in back surgery. I mean drama and I’m just, shall we say, a few days away from another, perhaps a third or fourth level shoulder surgery with all that. What I find is I have a moderately high pain tolerance. But in that, what I discover, is that I cannot do what I normally do to keep myself away from grief. And that the pain itself creates grief. But it also, in one sense is like an echo chamber that brings back so many other things. And in that sense, uh, it may not sound very encouraging but it’s haunting. Uh and until I, in one sense make place almost a topographical sense of, make place for all that I have been moving away from. And in one sense invite in. Come in, come in. You know you are not particularly a desirable guest but you are a guest and you’re being sent or at least the reality is you’re here and now. Will I make place and that’s what happens when I find myself having to slow down. So whether it’s just the bodies decay and you’re not able to do the things you once were able to do. Whether it’s more you are stricken with levels of suffering uh that don’t feel like any context for gratitude. I think again what we’re saying is that grief sets us up. It opens us. It empties us and in many ways it exposed, at least for me it exposes how I’d rather be on the peloton. I’d rather be running. I’d rather be taking a walk. I’d rather be lifting weights to exorcize, not exercise, exorcize. The things that I don’t want to actually engage. And yet Becky is, I have this upcoming surgery, kind of walked through two or three major debilitating physical experiences. And then said, do you remember how God used this for you. For us, but for you. And that was really amazing for me to have her say that. And to actually bring me back to memory, to be able to say yes, even in my body is suffering, there has been something of the work of God a renewal that I I meant to hold. I’m not looking forward to the surgery, but I want to see what degree renewal holds. So as we step further into this, we will be pondering more; your relationships, dear and relationships formative, meaning your family of origin. Got a lot more to think through.