As we prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, there is much preparation for the feasting and family this holiday brings to mind and heart. Grocery store lines are long and so are lines in traffic and at airports, bus stations, and train depots. Media is full of new recipes to try and stories about gratitude, but I am reminded that it is good to remember this will not be a joy-filled celebration for many others.
It can be easy when life is going relatively smoothly and we are blessed with close family and friends to share these days, but there will be many others for whom these days will be long and difficult. Yes, there will be some of us who will help serve meals in homeless shelters and other places offering free hot meals for those who have no table or no food, but there is another group that may not come to mind that we should remember as well.
This celebration (along with others) will be difficult for those who are alone or are experiencing this Thanksgiving without a person who has been dear to them at the table. Who are they?
There is the widow or widower who cannot imagine this day without their companion at their side. They feel unsure of how to handle the day or what they want to do. Often they just want it to be over and to slide through December and into January with more ordinary days to deal with their loss and grief. Some may have children who share their sorrow and will likely also be sorting out how to handle the day, but others may not have children or children who are absent from their lives so the day will feel especially heavy.
There is the single whose parents are no longer living and who feels like ‘odd man out’ with a celebration involving family. There is also the man or woman who once had a family whose lives have been broken by divorce. Family memories can be especially painful if the sense of what was once tradition and family time is no longer possible. It makes Thanksgiving a very hard day despite their best efforts to be grateful for the Lord’s blessings.
There are the children of all ages who are facing their first Thanksgiving without a parent. For their entire lives that parent has been there and their memories are full of those family times that are now changed. An ache that does not go away even in the company of other family or friends can be hard to navigate.
Anyone who is in the midst of grief and loss is trying to determine how to walk through these days.
If we are not, the question is whether or not we will remember them, be sensitive to their hurting hearts, and what may be helpful for them.
It is key to remember none of us can know their loss even if we have had a similar one. We cannot know what the relationship they have lost was like for them. It may have been a hurtful one that left open wounds unhealed before death or it may have been a rich one leaving a space that seems as vast as the ocean now.
Because of all that we also cannot know what might be helpful. For some an invitation to join our own family table may be a great blessing, but for others it will only remind them of their family loss. Be sensitive and gracious if you offer an invitation whether it is accepted or not.
In the profoundly moving movie, Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis’s wife, Joy, speaks very powerful words to him as they speak about the reality of facing her death from cancer:
“We can’t have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today. That’s the deal.”
And later she adds:
“The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.”
The pain of loss we experience is an echo from the Garden of Eden when death entered the world. God knows and understands it well. Isaiah 53 speaks of the Lord being a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”.
As believers, we often wrestle with our response to loss depending on our theology and view of the Lord. I think that makes the pithy words of the grief and loss C.S. Lewis expresses in A Grief Observed, about the death of his beloved wife, Joy, precious indeed.
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” C.S. Lewis
Let each of us remember those among us who are in a season of loss and grief as they face an empty chair at their table this Thanksgiving. Let us give them the gift of respect, the gift of a discerning heart and ear, the gift of either words or silence depending on their choice, but let us seek to let them know we are present and that we know this day will not be the same for them.