Struggling Toward Thanksgiving

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My wife and I are struggling toward Thanksgiving this year.

Struggling to take part in a celebration in which we are supposed to express gratitude, draw close to family, and enjoy the moments of this season. Struggling in the heart to feel thankful when the trauma of 2017 has crowded out the usual joys.

The Valley

In early May, my mother-in-law in Romania was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. For days, I was too stunned to pray. All our plans and routines fell to the wayside, and over the next five months, my wife and I found ourselves on a rollercoaster of shock and grief. It was a journey of mountains and valleys (mainly valleys) made darker by months of separation.

At first, Corina spent a month in Romania as the primary caregiver for her mother. She came home for a few weeks in the middle of summer before the situation worsened to the point she had to go back. Two more months passed, with each day adding to the burden of separation. The trial brought with it the wait and weight of not knowing when the end would come.

Looking back, the whole summer is a blur. For me, the bleary-eyed burden of life as a single father, continuing to juggle all my responsibilities but (with Corina gone) having to do so while standing on one foot. For Corina, a fog of isolation and dread, the harrowing the experience of watching aggressive cancer mangle the body of a loved one.

Corina’s dad struggled against cancer for three years before succumbing in 2013. Corina’s mom traveled the same decline, in just a little more than four months.

Every week, when I would talk with my mother-in-law on FaceTime, or when Corina would send me pictures, I would assume that the end was near. It can’t possibly get any worse, I’d say. And then, it would. Pictures of my mother-in-law that would shock me one week would look “not so bad” the next. The ravaging effects of cancer became so horrifying that I found myself reaching out for Holocaust analogies to help people understand what we were witnessing.

When I finally arrived in Romania, the two of us collapsed into each other’s arms and cried. Many of my tears were shed for Corina; I could see the physical toll these months had taken on her.

Since September, when Corina’s mother went to her reward, we’ve come to realize that the trial continues, just in a new form. Now, we are met everywhere we turn by a strong and enduring sense of loss. Dazed by the events of this year. Exhausted from how long the trial seemed to go on, yet shell-shocked by how fast it all took place. Disoriented by the knowledge that for my wife and me there is no home in Romania to return to again. Disillusioned and wondering why the plan of God was to take both of Corina’s parents at a relatively young age.

Give Thanks in Everything?

“Give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” It’s the time of year when Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians gets quoted. And I confess that this word from God is hard to hear this year.

Don’t misunderstand. I am grateful. Defiantly grateful in the face of all this pain.

In conversation this week, Corina and I thought of multiple things we were thankful for in the midst of this season of suffering. I choke up when I think of families at church and work who brought us meals so that, during my “single-dad stage,” my kids wouldn’t have to live on frozen foods! Family members ensured that I had help with transportation and childcare when I needed it. Leaders at my workplace prayed for me, supported me, and were flexible with my schedule. And, of course, we still have the hope of heaven—the beauty of knowing my mother-in-law is well cared for by the Savior who went ahead of her through the valley of the shadow death.

But all of these reasons for gratitude line the edges of a giant crater. An asteroid of suffering crashed into our lives, and no matter how thankful we are for the blessings unearthed in the fire, still—there’s a crater left behind. A deep sense of loss, all the common questions of why, and the inability to comprehend or fully accept what has just happened.

I know many others are, like us, struggling toward Thanksgiving this year. Please know you’re not alone.

There is no guilt in weeping. Even our Lord wept. There is no shame in barely hanging on to threads of hope. We look ahead into the darkness of grief with that all-too-common mix of trepidation and trust. We know that God will not waste our sufferings, and so, with as feeble and frail a whisper we can muster this year, still we say: Jesus, thank you.

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