I’ll be the first to tell you, I am not the best at expressing gratitude.
In November 2013, I was working as a live-in nanny for my cousin, Kim. She’s crafty beyond belief and had created a “Thankfulness Tree” for the kitchen table. In reality, it was a dead branch stuck in a pot with little construction paper leaves. Every morning, we would write something we were thankful for on a leaf and hang it on the tree.
My thankful leaves were about as impressive as a first-grader’s: family, friends, my job, food.
Traditional. Stereotypical. It read like a list of things you take for granted.
That would soon change.
Our cousin, Stephen, had been in the hospital since the beginning of November. The weeks had been filled with strokes, surgeries, tests, prayers, and praise. Doctors struggled to find out what was wrong with him, but eventually, he started getting better. The Monday before Thanksgiving, the doctors discussed their discharge plan. Stephen would be going home soon, but would need in-home care while he recovered from the stroke damage.
He was still young and strong, so they had high hopes for his healing.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my phone rang early in the morning. I answered it. My mother was practically whispering, choking back tears, “Jessica . . . Stephen is gone. He died around five this morning.”
I remember nothing else of that conversation. After I hung up, I sat on the edge of my bed, in shock.
He was supposed to be better. He was supposed to be going home. How could he just be gone? Why would God answer our prayers way back at the beginning of all of this only to take him now?
That morning, I went to the “Thankfulness Tree” and struggled to find something to write down.
I knew what I should be thankful for. I knew what I should write, but there was no deeper gratitude in my heart, just this hollow feeling of loss and betrayal. I questioned the goodness of the One I was supposed to be expressing my thanks to.
They said he would recover. We never got to say goodbye. What kind of loving God toys with people like that?
I questioned Him. I doubted Him. I felt betrayed, hurt, and angry.
Grief is hard to work through on its own. Working through a sudden loss during a season of thankfulness and celebration is enough to drive you insane.
It took me months of pretending to be OK to realize that you can’t make healing happen by pretending you aren’t hurting.
Eventually, I realized it was OK to tell God exactly how I was feeling.
This is what we see in the story of Lazarus as told in John 11.
In Sunday school, we focus on the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead because it makes a really neat coloring page, but there’s a story before that.
It’s the story of two sisters, their ailing brother, and their friend, Jesus.
Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was ill and pleaded with Him to come. He delayed and finally made His way to Bethany four days after Lazarus died. There, Mary and Martha remind Him that if He had been there, their brother wouldn’t be dead.
This is where we find the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” Jesus doesn’t take the opportunity to lecture about His sovereignty. He doesn’t scold them for questioning Him. He meets Mary and Martha in their grief by weeping with them. He weeps even though He knows all the answers, and He knows what He’s about to do.
He graciously responds to their hurt and questioning by drawing closer to them.
There’s an intimacy in being honest, even if it seems ungrateful or “un-Christian.”
Losing my cousin smack in the middle of the holiday season has been one of the most painful experiences of my adult life. It has shaken my faith in ways nothing else has. There have been many times I have simply told God, “I’m having a hard time believing You’re good right now.”
Oddly enough, I have never felt God’s presence more clearly.
I now know God to be a tender and compassionate friend, one who grieves with me.
Even when we doubt and question. Even when we struggle to see good, He is Immanuel, God with us. A God who knows us, loves us, and grieves with us.
For that, I am forever grateful.Leave a Comment
Bev @ Walking Well With God says
I am so sorry to read about your cousin Stephen. When things end tragically when they are “supposed” to turn out well, it does make us doubt. Some may say doubting is bad, but I believe it is our way of trying to draw nearer to our Father and understand His heart. We yearn to learn His ways and know what He knows. I believe that doubting and the inevitable grieving you are going through are “broken Hallelujahs”. So thankful we have a God who doesn’t chastise us or pull away when we doubt and grieve….no, He draws near. He is mindful of our frame; He knows we are but dust. Thank you for sharing your tender story and testimony of God’s faithfulness.
May you be richly blessed and comforted this Advent season,
Jessica Harris says
Thank you for your kind words. It is a privilege to share and bring hope and comfort to others. Yes, my relationship with God has certainly taken on new dimensions as I’ve understood that He sees our hurts and our pains and, in a sense, understands them. It’s so comforting.
Your words are arresting and bring tears to my eyes. You know losing my mother brought me closer to Christ than anything before or since. . .because it is through faith in Him that I can look forward to seeing her again. Hugs.
Jessica Harris says
Hugs back to you, Eunice. May He be an ever close comforter to you. <3
So sorry to hear about your cousin, Jessica. I have a similar story. While my sister didn’t pass away during the holidays, she did pass two months after she and I had decided to be roommates because we both needed the extra financial support from the other one. Of course, I missed her regardless, but feeling like the rug was pulled out from under me while missing my sister terribly, had me feeling rather bitter toward God for a bit. I just couldn’t understand why he would have presented the opportunity for the two of us to try to make a better life for each other and then take that away so suddenly. I had to learn that even through our hard times, God is still God and he still cares. It didn’t make sense to me, but I learned that not everything in life will make sense. I’m still grieving the loss of my sister, especially since this is the first holiday season without her, but I know she’s in a much better place. And, she has no financial worries any longer (or any worries of any kind, for that matter). For that, I’m happy.
Jessica Harris says
I am so sorry to hear about your sister. I know this season has to be so hard. He loves you, Kim, and He’s walking this road with you. It makes sense to Him, and we can trust His heart and know that it is compassionate toward us. Praying He makes you acutely aware of His presence and that you find a lasting peace and comfort there.
Cheri Johnson says
Thank you for sharing so honestly. We’ve all been there one way or another (at least by the time you get to my age). And you’re right. God can handle our honesty — our anger and confusion. He understands loss and feelings of abandonment. He doesn’t condemn us when we can’t find a reason to say thank you. And in spite of it all, He’s still as close as a sigh. I’m blessed by reading your story and the lessons God taught you in those difficult moments.
Jessica Harris says
Thank you for your kind words. I’m young-er… ish. (I turn 31 next week). This was the first loss I’ve experienced this close. It’s even more sobering to realize I’ve now outlived him. In some ways, though, I know God has used this to help prepare me for other losses, because, you’re right, we’ll all be there at some point, and probably more than once. Thank you for your encouragement.
Thank you for sharing and I’m very sorry for your loss. Having lost both my parents unexpectedly 10 weeks apart a few months ago I struggle with remaining joyful during these first holidays without them. I struggle with grieving and the why’s and the well meaning comments of friends and our church family. God is with us always and brings comfort. Knowing we’ll meet again in Heaven and my parents are in a perfect place helps bring peace. Learning grief is a journey and it’s okay to be sad and have real conversations with God.
Jessica Harris says
Oh, Susan! I am so sorry to hear that. I think part of the process for me was realizing I didn’t have to be joyful. It wasn’t that there was no reason to be joyful. In the moment, though, the pain was louder than any kind of joy. If that’s where you are this season, extend yourself that grace. Keep having those ‘real’ conversations, and thank you so much for sharing. I’m praying for you.
Gail Noe says
Thank you for sharing in such honesty. Being honest with someone, esp. God, who I felt really let me down has been a difficult but freeing path for me. I learned of my deep anger at God in a breakdown I suffered. I was ripping mad at Him for putting me in the family He chose due to the amount of abuse I suffered. I had a lot to learn and asked Him to teach me about Himself and His ways. He has been and is so faithful to answer this prayer. Lately, I experienced anger due to the dementia my husband is suffering. After much seeking His heart, I have been thanking Him IN the test not FOR the test and am currently learning more truth I did not know about my heart and God’s ways. God’s ways are way above ours and He is good all the time!!!!!
Jessica Harris says
In the test, not for the test <- that is brilliant. I can definitely identify with being mad at God. I grew up mad at him for similar reasons- abuse, divorce, etc. I hated Him growing up, wanted nothing to do with Him. I still haven't figured out if that made this grieving process better or worse, because it was so easy to click back into that, "SEE!? I KNEW I couldn't trust You!!!" mode. That's what made this journey such a tough time for me because my tendency was to cut my losses… in other words, walk away from God, when at the same time, He was the only one I could think of to run to for comfort.
But you're right. He is good, all the time. Praying that He continues to teach you. He's such a good and patient teacher.
Thank you for sharing your struggle. My family is grieving a loss and your words are what my heart needed to hear.
Jessica Harris says
I am so sorry for your loss. May God hold your family close during this holiday season.
I totally understand about loosing someone “smack in the middle of the holiday season” and about it “being one of the most painful experiences of your adult life”…that someone for me was my beautiful mom. A year before your terrible loss, only four days after Thanksgiving my mom fell in their driveway. My dad was outside trimming branches off of a small tree in their front yard so he could put the Christmas lights on it, when my mom had walked out their ( flat ) driveway to get the mail. Coming back, she stepped up onto their patio and just fell backwards not even trying to catch herself. My poor dad watched it happen being too far away to do anything that quick. Their family doctor later said he feels she suffered an aneurism. They could only do a CT scan (which showed a massive brain bleed) because about 45 years ago my mom had had brain surgery for an aneurism that they clamped with a metal clamp, therefor she could never have an MRI. We spent three days in the hospital. She never gained consciousness. It was 6 days after a wonderful Thanksgiving that my dear momma when to heaven.
The following year we realized my mom’s one year anniversary was going to be right on Thanksgiving. I really felt that God just wanted us to be so Thankful for her and the life we shared with her…and that the very deep hurt just meant that we shared a love that was that deep. He also wanted us to be thankful for having my mom for all those years…he could have taken her when I was a little girl…it was truly a miracle that she survived. I know that the Holy Spirit surrounded me with peace during that time…I honestly think it was also all the prayers my mother had said for me in my life that gave me strength and they still do. I could not have survived that sudden loss of my mom, my best friend on my own. And you are right..”Grief is hard to work through on its own. Working through a sudden loss during a season of thankfulness and celebration is enough to drive you insane” but God is Good…He is Immanuel…God with us! Wishing you beautiful memories of your cousin and strength always especially during the holidays.
I never knew the depth of God’s greatness and love and power until I suffered a loss. One morning, my friend gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Her first, after years of struggle. Six hours later I learned my boyfriend died from complications of diabetes. He was 40. It was sudden. He was on the mend. He was better. So, we thought. The blessing of a much awaited life was followed by the loss of a true love. Over the next few days, I saw God’s grace cradle me through each hour. In the midst of the enormous heartache, disbelief, and shock, I saw God interceding. I felt it. Those are the things that prove how Good God is during these times. Sometimes you notice them weeks, months, and years later. I was blessed to see them in the midst. Grief is a process. Give in to those moments and appeal to God, but avoid despair at all costs. It delays the healing. Be eternally blessed.
I am deeply sorry for the loss of your cousin. I hope, and pray that you find peace, and comfort in the Lord.
You told my story of four years ago, except it was my brother. As a pastor’s wife, I process death a lot, but this one shook me to my core. He was supposed to come home the day he died. He was my big brother. The boy of 13, who became a man overnight to his 4 siblings when Dad & Mom divorced. My faith forever changed. I had to decide if this God really could be trusted. Thankfully I chose to believe he absolutely could. But I no longer sitting worship songs glibly, I hear every word and I don’t sing some songs at all. I am certain that, “I Surrender All”, should honestly be sung, “I Surrender Some”, by most of us and “Blessings” is a more accurate journey through trials. Fortunately, as I sit here today writing this, my faith is deeper and I have learned empathy is far better than sympathy. My grief will never end, neither will anyone else’s. It merely changes.
Thank you for your story and the chance to once again remember my own.
I’m so sorry for your loss and appreciate you sharing your story. My mother passed away unexpectedly on December 21, 2010. It was a horrible time for me, coupled with the fact that I was involved in a bad accident a few days prior which left me in severe back pain and lots of medical issues. On top of that we had a huge snowstorm and people could not come to the funeral. Burial was on a different day and that was a horrible fiasco. It was hard to believe that a loving God could allow all of this to happen. But in the midst of all of this, I knew that God had been good to allow me so many wonderful years with my mother, and he answered my prayer of allowing me to meet my husband prior to my parents passing away. It was also a comfort to think that God had called my mother to be in Heaven with Him to celebrate Christmas, her most loved holiday.
Kat Leon says
My son was killed in Iraq almost 10 1/2 yrs ago. I and many others had prayed so hard while he was deployed. I couldn’t understand how God didn’t answer our prayers to bring him home safely. To say I was angry with God was an understatement. I couldn’t pray or worship but I did continue to go to Bible studies. Thankfully I had many friends praying for me during this time. My anger lasted 3 yrs. It was during a Bible study that we were discussing the same verses I had prayed for Chris, Ephes 6:10-17. When I prayed this I could visualize Chris getting ready for a mission. At the study we were discussing “putting on the helmet of salvation”. It was at that moment that I realized my prayers had been answered, just not in an earthly way. Chris did have his “helmet of salvation” on. My anger disappeared and has never returned. I really feel this was a Holy Spirit moment. Since then I have had to grieve 3 other family members. Chris’ death will always be the most difficult. The holidays are still a struggle even though I know they are all with the Lord. We are never prepared to lose someone close and thankfully we don’t know the last moments of our time here on earth.
I have been greatly blessed by the love and prayers of some very special friends but this time of year is always difficult along with the start of another year.
Hugs to all of you who are walking this grief journey. It does get easier but we will always be a different person. I do have to say that my relationship with the Lord is stronger than it’s ever been and for that I’m thankful. Continuing to grow in trust and faith has been a huge step in making it this far.
Rebecca L Jones says
Thank you for your son’s service and sacrifice. I pray you know His peace. I feel as I’m reading this that he may have saved lives by giving his.
Jessica Harris says
As Rebecca said, thank you. Thank you for the sacrifice you made a mom in letting your son serve our country. You have paid the ultimate price for that. That is not lost on this Air Force brat with Navy uncles. I had an old co-worker whose son was killed in Afghanistan just before Thanksgiving ten years ago. Watching her come into work two days later was heartwrenching.
May God continue to comfort you. Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your experience and encouragement with those who may still be in the midst of grief.
Rebecca L Jones says
Grief is a terrible thing. And it is normal to mourn. As you said, Jesus wept. But left unchecked it morphs into a tormenting spirit, and can seep into a soul so deeply as to destroy health or cause depression. It can even be life threatening. I have seen it happen to one lady who just chose to stay alone, grieving over her parents, I have counseled another that lost a baby in December, it’s on her heart as she has to enjoy Christmas with her other children. I too, have suffered under this. It is possible to grieve over losses that are not death as well. It’s never a good idea to be angry with God. He knows so much more than we do. If we as believers will be quiet and still, the Holy Spirit can minister to us. We must learn to listen to Him. As I have learned to follow Him more closely, I have seen Him prevent situations, even life threatening ones on occasion. I do not blame anyone or condemn them, or say you lack faith. I would never do that because neither would He. He understands. I am truly sorry for all your losses and pray for the Holy Spirit to release over you all His peaceful presence as you remember loved ones this holiday season. And I bind grief and loose it from it’s assignment against you, in Jesus name. Thanksgiving and Christmas in heaven would be something. I knew of a lady who passed at 12:25 on 12/25, yet that drove her son into terrible grief. So I’m praying for people differently now.
My heart goes out to you in your grief for I believe I went through a very similar situation in1991 with my mother. She had a massive coronary when she was 36 and barely survived it. I was a young girl about 10 years old. For two months after the heart attack she was confined to bed and she taught me to cook by ringing a bell and walking me through each step of the casserole I was preparing for my daddy and two big brothers. She eventually got well enough to try to resume a normal life only to be diagnosed with severe diabetes around the age of 40. She struggled along with heart and diabetic issues until she was 57. There was a heart speacialist who operated on diabetic patients and mother needed open heart surgery so on November 7,1991 she went in to have surgery with the understanding that he planned to give us at least 10 good years with her. Well Jessica to make a very long story short the surgery was way more complicated than any of their preliminary tests had shown and she was on the operating table 13 hours. At 3:00 am when the Dr. was finally able to leave her side he came to us to explain the problems he encountered. Momma passed the next day at 2:00 pm and it was the most devastating day of my life and I was definitely mad at God. I kept yelling out “But He could have fixed her; why didn’t He?” It took me a long time, a lot of prayer, a lot of time in the Word to get over being angry. We had to celebrate Thanksgiving, 2 birthdays (1 my 6 year old daughter who couldn’t grasp how grandma went into a hospital to get better and ended up with Jesus); I’m telling you it truly was the most awful time in my adult life; I’d just lost my best friend. But the Lord made me see and understand. I still miss her every single day but I know she’s where she always wanted to be. My daddy joined her May 7,2015 and it was so hard to let him go but they’re finally reunited and enjoying their eternal home and that’s what they both wanted and I’ve learned to accept and know I’m going to be with them one day too.
I’ll pray for you Jessica because I really feel I’ve been where you have. Have a blessed Christmas. K.
Jessica Harris says
Thank you for sharing your story. I know it’s been a while for you, but I’m still sorry for your loss. Our families are always a part of us. As a family, we’re bracing for the time we have to grieve my aging grandparents (on my mom’s side- my parents are divorced). I’m blessed to still have them (they’re both in their 80s!) and I do my best to soak up every moment I have with them. I know I’ll miss them when they’re gone, but goodness, when you hear them talk about Jesus, it’s clear they’d be totally fine to join Him today! My gramma gets teary-eyed when she talks about Heaven. I hope you have a blessed Christmas as well.
Seven years ago this Saturday, I was sitting on the couch at home, nearly forty weeks pregnant, when I heard the front door unlock and my husband come inside. At nine in the morning. When he should have been at work. He sat down on the couch next to me and gently said “Aunt Nean is gone…they found her this morning…” My beloved aunt, my dad’s sister who had moved halfway across the country to restart her life near what little family she had left after a divorce, who had become such an integral part of our family that we couldn’t remember what it was like before she was there, who lived just across the parking lot from me and my husband in the same townhome complex, was gone. She had been sick with the flu. She’d refused to go to the doctor, because she didn’t have insurance and she didn’t want another bill to pay. It had turned into pneumonia. She died in her sleep, drowned in her own body fluids.
Three days later, I gave birth to my first baby. My spirit was torn between rejoicing and grieving. I sat in my hospital bed holding my new baby boy, sobbing because my aunt wasn’t going to come walking through the door to hold her new great-nephew. My parents were wracked with guilt – what if they had forced her to go to the doctor, offered to pay the bill? What if they had called? What if they had gone by and checked on her?
The memorial service was the day after I was released from the hospital. My first outing with my new baby, the first time we set foot in our church as a family of three, was for my aunt’s funeral. Christmas came a few weeks later. And now every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, my aunt’s memory is there. Cooking in the kitchen with my mom, laughing that laugh of hers that was so infectious, holding the babies on her big soft bosom where inevitably the baby would fall asleep.
It was the first time loss had rocked my world. I think there is a perspective brought to life by loss that you can’t gain until you’ve been through it. It hurts. It’s gut wrenching and confusing and sometimes it feels like your very soul is being torn apart. But you know what else I learned, is that it is not all consuming. I experienced the greatest grief and the greatest joy of my life up to that point at the exact same time. And I survived it. It gave me such an awe of the way God designed the human heart. We have a capacity we don’t fully understand. And while I would not choose to go back and relive that time, I have a deep appreciation for the peek I got to have into that capacity.
I co-taught at church this week on empathy, and we focused on this passage. Such a beautiful picture of how God receives and responds to our honest hearts! Thanks for sharing!
Beth Williams says
So sorry for the sudden loss of your cousin, Stephen. I pray you feel God’s comfort daily. It is ok to tell God exactly how you feel. I find it cathartic, even. My aging mom had bad dementia and was bedridden for two years & on hospice for 1 year. I prayed daily that God would take her home with him. It was tough seeing her deteriorate and waste away. Finally God took her home & for me it was a blessing-I felt I had lost her two years prior. Earlier this year my aging dad’s dementia got bad and he was hospitalized. I cried to God to take him-just let him go be with Jesus. God had other plans and healed him(back to his normal).
Don’t be shy about letting God know how you feel-tears and all. Grieving & mourning are natural. God understands and grieves with us.
Jessica Harris says
God gets my opinion on things a lot. Ha! I’m glad He’s ok with hearing them. I appreciate you sharing your story as my family is now walking through the process of my grandmother having some form of memory loss or dementia. She was just visiting for Thanksgiving and said, “I used to have that in my brain, but it feels like everything in my brain has just fallen out.” Made me want to cry.
We had always wondered which would be harder- watching the mind go with age or the body. Now we’re walking through the journey, essentially, with one of each. Conclusion: neither is easy. But I’m so glad that the Hope that keeps the light in their eyes is the same hope that carries our hearts.
Beth Williams says
My parents had a cute quote “Old age isn’t for sissies”. Boy were they ever right!! Watching people get old & seeing their minds & bodies go is hard. Will be praying for your grandmother and you all as you navigate her medical issues.
David Berg says
I’ve been through very similar struggle twice in my life; when my mother died too young from cancer but too late to let her know what the love of Christ meant to me, and again after my wife and I tried unsuccessfully to revive a toddler after a hot tub accident. In both instances I struggled to see why God would see fit to allow something tragic without doing it my way or in my timing. Thanks for sharing, I can never get tired hearing truth, and you put it so well.
p.s. Thank you for replying to my email a couple weeks ago regarding a search for a meaningful gift to our son as we seek to find a way to mark his coming of age. I truly appreciate the advice!
Jessica Harris says
Thank you for reading, and it’s my pleasure to help in any way I can. I felt completely ill-equipped, but I have some great male counterparts who know a thing or two. I hope you were able to find something for him! Praying God gives you wisdom and guidance. Have a blessed Christmas.
Heidi Braden says
I’m so sorry you experienced this. I am sure each holiday season since then has brought the pain back up to the surface. I lost my mom almost 3 years ago, and I also went through a season of being angry with God. Somehow, though, on the other side of that hurt and anger, I feel even closer to Him. Maybe because I now know that He’ll stand by me and carry me through any emotion, any season.
I hope you find peace during this year’s holiday season.
Jessica Harris says
Honestly, more than for me, I appreciate prayers for my aunt and uncle- Stephen’s parents, as this time of year is very hard for them. Stephen’s father’s birthday was two days after Stephen passed. My aunt was with Stephen in the hospital. She wouldn’t leave his side, because she wanted to make sure he would be ok. Stephen was their last remaining child. Their other son died in a car accident 25 years ago. It’s very hard for them.