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That grief you feel can make this Thanksgiving unforgettable

What if grief allows one to be grateful? What if gratitude makes meaning out of grief?

A Christian devotee wearing a mask offers prayers at a Church in Mumbai, India, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020.
AP

Hardly has football and food felt so trivial as it does this Thanksgiving Day; some combination of imperiled democracy, toxic partisanship, illness, death and despair has made sure of that.

It’s a burden that weighs heavy on the nation’s shoulders. In public and private, the country is grieving, and the usual quarrels over whether to brine a turkey seem meaningless in context.

Yet, it’s that grief that can and should make this season of gratitude unforgettable.

The link binding sorrow and thanksgiving isn’t readily noticed, mostly because it’s not instinctive. Heartache begets a range of emotions — revenge, depression, anger. Gratitude doesn’t top the list.

But what if grief allows one to be grateful? What if gratitude makes meaning out of grief?

The accomplished psychotherapist and author Francis Weller put it this way: “If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”

“How much sorrow can I hold?” Weller asks, “That’s how much gratitude I can give.”

Like a rubber band stretched tight, the pain of the moment pulls deeply while the capacity for gratitude expands. In one way, the collective loss of the nation underscores the value of life’s basic elements: relationships, health and safety, all of which ought to play an outsize role in today’s rituals of thanksgiving.

And in another way, the grieving process accentuates those small interactions that mostly go unnoticed: the light of the sun on a cold fall day, the promise of bread at the grocery store, the touch of a loved one or the smile of a stranger. It’s grief that turns the mundane into wonder — expressions of love from a mindful God.

President Abraham Lincoln, the leader of a grieving nation ripped at the seams, knew how to give thanks and to whom it ought to be directed. In his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, the president spoke of the blessings of harvest, the success of the country’s growth and the promise of freedom in the years ahead, a civil war notwithstanding.

“No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” the proclamation declared. “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.”

We affirm that there is much to be grateful for in this season, much more than any one person deserves. And we are sure that inviting the grief and sorrow to move through us, rather than letting it define us, will open our eyes to grace from above and the daily miracles occurring in emergency rooms, classrooms and living rooms across the country.

And we, like Lincoln, anxiously look toward that day when the nation heals and hearts are whole, when the “Almighty hand” restores all associations “to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”