Finding Gratitude after Grief

As Thanksgiving approaches, we are surrounded by images and campaigns promoting gratitude. In 2016 around this same season, it was extremely difficult for me to give thanks to anyone. Neither my family, my friends, nor God were able to provide the one thing I felt I needed when I was in a serious state of loss and grief. Three years ago, we lost my father unexpectedly. There was no anticipation of his passing, no plans for his death, no goodbye, and no one who could bring him back to me.

The day before my dad died, our family and some friends had gathered to watch the Vikings-Packers game at my then-fiancé’s condo in Minneapolis. My dad was a tremendous fan of the Green Bay Packers and any time spent watching his football team with his family was glorious to him. We spent the evening eating, drinking, laughing, and talking with the guests that had gathered. We FaceTimed my sister, who was studying in Madrid at the time, and called my aunt, whose birthday it was on that Sunday. In essence, it was a perfect day for us; it seemed he was able to speak with every person he loved on his last full day on earth.

The next morning was Monday, September 19, 2016. I was living with my parents at the time and remember distinctly the last time I saw my dad that morning before I left for work. I had finished getting ready and ran upstairs to my bedroom to take my bag to the car. My dad passed me on the staircase dressed in his shirt and shorts for his daily jog on that beautiful morning. “I love you!” He yelled as he left the house. “I love you, too!” I responded, and then drove to work.

The next hours and days were a blur. On my way to work, I received a panicked call from my mom that I will never forget. My dad had suffered a massive heart attack on his run, had been discovered by a stranger walking past his fallen body on the sidewalk, and was in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. I met her there in the ER, went into his room, and stood quietly in shock next to his inanimate body on the hospital bed. I witnessed the medical staff attempt one last time to resuscitate him. The attempt failed. There was nothing more we could do. He had died before noon.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us, “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Mt 25:13) It’s hard to put into words how ready my dad was to die at any moment. His entire life was a witness to faith. He was firm in his beliefs, but charitable in his actions. He supported, taught, and loved me, my sister, and my mom every day of his life. He received the sacraments regularly and always strived to act in accordance with the Catholic Church. The day of his funeral, the church where the mass was held was completely full; the attendance at the funeral was a testament to the impact he made on the lives of his friends, coworkers, colleagues, and family.

But it took me a long time to realize that my dad had lived a beautiful, virtuous, dignified, full life. In the weeks and months after his sudden death, I was sometimes hysterical, sometimes depressed, and sometimes numb. I distinctly recall one moment about a month after his death where I felt the deepest despair I had ever experienced. I was crying and shaking uncontrollably in my parent’s living room with the same recurring thought in my mind: “This is it? He dies and that’s it? And I’m never going to see him again?”

My despair then evolved into a different kind of self-centered misery; I became enveloped in how anguished the next few stages of my life would be. “I’m only 23 years old and I don’t have a father. I have to walk down the aisle at my wedding in six months with no one to lead me to the altar. My children will never know this amazing man whom I was blessed to call my dad…”

 My faith was like a spotlight in this dark time, however, which broke through the obscurity of the pain I was feeling and focused its luminescence on the countless other graces in my life. It was Jesus Christ’s resurrection that allowed me to believe that all this despair I was feeling would be redeemed in Heaven when we are united with God. There is nothing else I could find in this world that would give meaning to this suffering except God, and I clung to that hope to climb out of the darkness again. The idea that helped me most was that Jesus didn’t promise anywhere in the Gospels that this life would be easy or free from difficulties. He actually encourages us to do quite the opposite; if we want eternal happiness in the next life, we must “take up [the] cross.” (Mk 8:34)

So I embraced my suffering as Jesus Christ embraced the Holy Cross. Little by little, I was comforted in knowing that He had shared in the pain with me during his time on earth and, as time passed, my own wounds began to slowly heal. The scars remain deep in me, and I know I will never be the same without my dad on earth with me. But accepting my suffering as something I knew would bring me closer to Jesus allowed me to also acknowledge the undeniable joys in my life:

I was about to get married to the most incredible man I’ve ever met!

My whole family and all my friends would be there to celebrate our wedding!

I was going on an unforgettable honeymoon to Greece!

(And nine months later…) My husband and I were going to be expecting a baby boy!

When I recognized these pronounced joys in my life, I became overwhelmingly grateful to God and to my family for these gifts. How could I remain desperate when so many positive events were awaiting me? How could I dwell on the death of my father when he had already given me so much during his time on earth? How could I abandon hope when I truly believed he was now enjoying the communion of saints and peace in the afterlife?

At the mass of my dad’s funeral, one of the readings was The Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew. The line, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted,” seemed most relevant to me in 2016, but today, although I still grieve for my dad, it seems the closing line of the reading is where I should have focused all along: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” I have found that now, in addition to every other blessing in my life, I am grateful for the gift of Heaven and the hope of the Resurrection. My prayer is that everyone recognizes this gift so that they, too, can rejoice despite the pain and evil we face in this life on earth.

I wish everyone a blessed Thanksgiving Day! May God’s love perforate your every interaction and may you be filled with the grace of peace.

God bless,

Julia