This week, my husband and I will celebrate our 33rd Thanksgiving together. We got engaged on the first Thanksgiving holiday, were newly married for the second and held our newborn son on the third. My husband and I had only celebrated two Thanksgivings together by the time we had our first-born son.
Our first Thanksgiving as parents laid a foundation of gratitude for the years ahead.
The three weeks prior were filled with a rollercoaster of emotions even beyond the tides of new parenthood. One of my eldest sisters was killed by a drunk driver just three days after my son was born. Because of complications with the cesarean section birth of my firstborn, I was unable to make the three-hour trip to attend any of the funeral services for my sister.
My brothers and sisters visited us shortly after the funeral, but an air of grief hung over our joy. It was a tumultuous time filled with the complex emotions of the joy of birth and the grief of loss.
After the crowds faded from my parents’ side, they joined us at our home on Long Island for Thanksgiving. It was a trek for them to drive and take the ferry from Connecticut, their minds and hearts still so weary with the grief of losing their daughter.
I still remember how they looked on that Thanksgiving. I think it was the first time I realized they were growing old. Grief aged them — even as they smiled. Yet, their Irish eyes still sparkled with the pride of holding their 10th grandchild.
Our son tipped the scales in the grandsons’ favor, much to the dismay of my four young nieces who hoped this birth could settle the score. My parents’ grandchildren now cumulatively exceeded the number of their own progeny — once eight now numbered seven children on this earth.
I remember the Thanksgiving blessing well. It was filled with heartfelt sorrow and gratitude. My father choked back tears as he thanked God for his children and grandchildren and my mother’s eyes brimmed. Life was moving forward as they cradled their new grandson, but in their grieving hearts, time stood still.
Years later, one of my eldest daughters was born on Thanksgiving, recreating for me the bittersweet memories of that earlier year. A few years and four children later, Johanna’s first Thanksgiving was sandwiched in between brain surgeries.
Over the years, we spent many holidays in the pediatric intensive care unit, giving thanks in hope and tears. As I look back at pictures of me in those times, I recognize a glazed look in my eyes. For me, that look revealed my struggle to give thanks in the midst of sorrow and trust that God had a plan to grant us a future full of hope.
The apostle Paul writes: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18.
And I question: “In all circumstances — really ? — like death, illness, financial loss, and fear?”
I have challenged the validity of this scripture numerous times throughout my life – but none so much as through the years of celebrating the sorrows and the joys of marriage and family life. In all these circumstances and more, I discovered the power of gratitude and the wisdom of God’s will for my life being rooted in a simple act of thanks.
And it is simple.
There were (and still are) circumstances where I find it hard to give thanks. But taking a breath — in itself a seemingly insignificant autonomic response which literally extends our life — and recalling little things to be grateful for helps me to remember more. Like priming a water line or pump, gratitude starts with a trickle that moves, expands and overflows.
Gratitude moves life forward and opens a vision for a future full of hope.
It was gratitude that compelled my parents to imagine a fruitful life beyond their grief of burying a child. They lived almost 30 years and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren more beyond that bittersweet Thanksgiving. Their simple faith reminded me to thank God in all circumstances — in facing loses, illnesses and struggles.
Through all our joys and sorrows, I’ve learned that gratitude is not based on the things for which we are grateful — but rather on an internal disposition of heart and mind which changes our perspective.
It is possible to give thanks in all circumstances as one word leads to another. Until, in the end, there is a stream of gratitude overflowing from our hearts.
I don’t know anyone who is without sorrow this Thanksgiving — but I do know many who will give thanks — all the same. If your hearts are heavy this season, begin with taking a single breath and thanking God you are able to breathe.
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