The Gifts of Gratitude

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were indeed called in the one body.  And be thankful.

Colossians 3:15

Years ago, when I was still in seminary, I worked a part time job as a hospital chaplain in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I loved the work.  It felt like a holy privilege to get to walk alongside people through some of the darkest and most difficult days of their lives.  

One patient visit I still think about a lot was with a woman named Donna.  Donna was near the end of her life, dying of stage IV breast cancer that had metastasized to her liver.  I knew this would also be a challenging visit for me, because Donna, who was almost the exact same age my mom would have been, was dying in exactly the same way my mom did over two decades earlier.  She even had a daughter that was pretty close to my age.  And while Donna had made her peace with death and was more than ready to enter hospice care, her daughter was decidedly not ready for that.

For most of the visit, I sat with them in silence, trusting that my presence would speak all the deep care and compassion that I did not have words for.  Donna kept trying to reach her daughter, trying to reason with her and to get her to see that entering hospice care would give them the best chance to be able to fully enjoy their last days together.  And from somewhere inside me, the idea bubbled up that maybe it would actually be helpful to share my own experience as a way of sympathizing with what Donna’s daughter was going through.  And so I shared that, even though I couldn’t pretend to know exactly what she was feeling, I did know the pain of losing your mom to breast cancer since mine had died in the same way when I was nine.

Donna was moved by this story and expressed her own sympathy that I had lost my mother at such a young age.  And then she turned to her own daughter and said, “We’ve gotten to have so much more time than that.  We have twenty more years of memories of times spent together.  What a gift!”  And the two began to reminisce together, sharing story after story, giving thanks for all the many memories and moments of laughter and tears and love, all the moments of life they had gotten to have together.  Donna transitioned into hospice care the very next day, and a week later she was gone.

Gratitude can have extraordinary power to transform us.  It doesn’t change any of the facts of our life, but it can completely change our experience of them.  Giving thanks was never going to stop Donna from dying, but it did transform her last days from a painful struggle with her daughter – who would probably have come to regret it later – into time that was unutterably precious and holy.

When we are experiencing times of crisis and challenge, gratitude is what helps us to develop the resilience we need to survive and thrive.  It enables the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts, as the author of Colossians phrases it.  This is especially true in situations where circumstances are simply beyond our control, as in this pandemic we are currently living through.  By focusing on gratitude for what we have instead of clinging to our disappointment about what we’re missing, we are able to shift our perspective from one of loss and scarcity to one of hopefulness and abundance.  Gratitude reminds us that God is a God of hopefulness and abundance, and that even when times are hard, God never fails us nor abandons us.

Whatever you may be struggling with, I encourage you to pause and consider all that you are thankful for. And I pray that you may know the peace of Christ deep in your own heart – and be thankful.

First published in St. John’s September 2020 newsletter.

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Allison Siburg

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