I woke to a beautiful scene outside my window—a quintessential New England winter day complete with snow-covered trees and a gentle hush of peace. I lay there a moment, welcoming the peace as it seeped into my weary bones.
Grabbing the warmest sweatshirt I could find, I stepped around furniture not yet nestled in its place and made my way downstairs, the rise and tread still new to my feet.
A thousand miles from familiar, we had done the one thing I said I’d never do: move away. A cross-country trek from Illinois to Massachusetts that, quite frankly, both shocked us and made absolute sense all in the same breath.
Standing in the kitchen, I stared at the mess. Boxes scattered along the wall. Randomly stacked dishes and cabinets stuffed with pots and pans. No organization. No rhyme or reason. Our stuff was there, but my heart lingered elsewhere.
The whine began just before the words spilled from my soul. What did we do? Sadness stirred as I replayed our goodbyes. To our families. Our friends. All we knew.
I stood mulling over the day’s game plan as memories slowly replaced the to-do’s. Memories of midwestern winters, kids growing up, jobs I enjoyed, and friends I loved. Gratitude mixed with tears as another goodbye tenderly rose from my heart, a goodbye I’d said once before.
The first one happened in 2005. Fire broke out in the early morning of an ordinary day. On my way to work, I remembered something I’d left at home. I turned around and headed back. It’s curious to me how a simple act of obedience in a single moment forever changes the course of life.
Turning down my street I noticed something peculiar. Plumes of smoke filled the sky, stark and black against the beautiful blue morning. Well, that doesn’t seem right, I thought to myself until that moment between exhale and inhale as reality hit.
My house was on fire.
I jumped out of the car before I remembered whether or not I put it in park. Looking around, I tried to make sense of what I saw. The black smoke that filled the sky. The flames that licked the roof. The neighbor who showed up and ran inside after tossing me his phone to call 911. The words that cried from the depths of my soul—my baby is still inside!
I met grief that morning that fire destroyed everything. Staring at death through the eyes of my precious daughter, Emma, life as I knew it changed in an instant. My daughter breathed her last inside those walls of our home as grief became my companion.
The days following Emma’s death were excruciating and surreal. I answered questions and made decisions no parent should make. Yet, there I was, choosing her casket and planning a celebration of her life.
Somewhere mingled between the moments of grief and reality, I felt a comfort and peace that defied my circumstances. I feel like my heart has been ripped to shreds, I later penned in my journal. Emma is dead. To us, anyway. I praise you because you are in control. I praise you because you are love. I praise you because you weep with me. It’s so difficult to think that I won’t have her with me anymore. Thank you for your words of comfort from the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Thank you for being with Emma in her darkest moment. Thank you for the gift of her life.
Words from my journal, an entry dated March 8, 2005, just six days after that not-so-ordinary, ordinary day. How did I thank God though Emma’s body lay cold and still? How did I write those words in the midst of such heartache and loss?
It started long before that fateful moment I decided to turn my car around. Call it politeness or good upbringing, but I knew to say thank you for good things. Then, in the moments of sorrow, I learned to say thank you through the shattered pieces of my broken heart.
It happened in the car that moment I turned around, the moment I thanked God for reminding me of what I’d forgotten with no idea of the suffering I was about to endure.
It continued when I fell to my knees on my driveway while smoke hung in the air. Please find her. Please find her. Please find her.
I turned toward God as I walked the halls of the hospital while my daughter danced from life to eternity. I recognized the voice from the One who loves beyond death as he whispered do you trust me, urging me to see beyond the natural.
No matter what, my heart surrendered. I trust you. Whether she lives or dies, I trust you. It was there in that dark moment that I chose the harder but better way. I chose to trust though the days and months and years ahead looked bleak. I chose to trust as grief shrouded my vision, and my shattered heart continued to beat, marking each moment since my precious girl’s ceased.
Madeleine L’Engle says, “Faith is for that which lies on the other side of reason. Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys.”
The pain was suffocating as I learned to dance with grief and gratitude. Hot tears of sorrow seared my cheeks as they fell, reminding me that though my heart felt dead, I still lived.
I learned the language of lament, crying out to God with all the pain I could declare. I dumped every shattered piece before him—my fears and worries, my longing and questions, my doubt and uncertainty. I cried out like David. “O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?” (Ps. 13:1-2, NLT).
Slowly, with each excruciating beat of my heart, I laid myself bare before him, begging for hope, longing for peace. And slowly, through everyday moments of living and breathing, a tender shoot of gratitude took root as I chose to see past what was in front of me and linger on what lies beyond.
A sovereignty that guides every moment of time—from the burst of creation to the fulfillment of Christ’s return.
A hope that breathes life into dry and weary bones.
A goodness that defies logic and understanding but is good all the same. A faithful goodness that steadies and satisfies. A promise to see his goodness in the land of the living; a goodness that surpasses the pain of loss.
I learned there was only one way to respond to these truths—a heart of gratitude. A thanksgiving that bubbles from deep within, enabling me to press on and endure.
The prophet Jeremiah says it best. “The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness: his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him’” (Lam. 3:19-24, NLT).
Those words breathed life to my wounded heart. Thankfulness doesn’t ignore suffering; it embraces it—all of its pain-filled lessons and glorious gifts. Thankfulness gives sight to see what lies beyond.
Early on I tucked these promises in close, allowing truth to shower me with mercy and grace. But over time, I longed to share it with others. Others who buried children. Others whose hearts shattered from pain and sorrow. I longed to do as David did and “give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done” (Ps. 105:1, NLT).
It’s become my way of life—this declaration of his goodness, this heart of gratitude. It’s through thanksgiving that I can embrace my calling and love the Lord my God with all of my heart and soul and strength. To praise him for the miracle he performed in my heart and the healing he brought not only from my first goodbye to my little girl but this second time as we moved a thousand miles away. Away from her grave. Away from our family. Away from familiar.
But not away from his goodness, his grace, nor his presence.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever” (Ps. 106:1).