DURHAM, North Carolina -- It is Thanksgiving, and I am engaged in what seems like the most suitable of Thanksgiving-time tasks: I am writing thank-you notes. But this is a Thanksgiving with a difference, for me. My husband died six weeks ago, and the thank-you notes are to the dozens upon dozens of people who cared for us, and for me, at the time of his illness and death.
Writing thank-you notes at such a time, in the midst of such
terrible loss, sounds like an awful chore. And yet, I feel myself drawn to the task, looking forward to sitting down, pen in hand, thinking of each person and his or her gesture of caring, and finding the words to thank him or her.
Defined by death
I find myself reflecting, not only on what these people did for us in this particular time of need, but on the paths we have traveled together to this point, and on the way that this loss, this death, has come to define the place from which we will rise to meet whatever lies ahead.
I am reminded somehow of the story in the Bible in which God gives his people victory over their enemies; and in thanksgiving they set up a stone and call it Ebenezer, Stone of Help, saying, "This far has the Lord helped us."
It feels as if that is what I am doing, in saying thank-you to all these people. I am heaping up little piles of rocks, marking the places where these friends have given of themselves to me. Our lives are linked by my loss and their gift; and my gratitude, and its expression, serve to mark the place where that link has been forged.
And I need to have these places marked. In the mountains, piles of stones are used to mark trails which lie above the tree line. These stones serve to guide hikers through what otherwise would be a trackless wilderness.
What grief feels like
That is what grief feels like. A friend, writing to me of his own bereavement, describes his grief as "barren and cold, harsh, desolate. . . ." Yes, I think. Yes, that is what it is like to lose one's beloved. The loss produces a vast emptiness, like a snowy, windswept mountaintop; it seems to go on and on forever, utter bleakness stretching out before me farther than the eye can see.
But while the austere barrenness of grief seems to have no end, that is not quite all there is -- for in fact, when I turn and look behind me, I see all these little piles of rocks. There is no trail ahead of me, but there is a trail behind me. It is a trail made of countless gifts of caring, and I am marking it as I pause and reflect and give thanks to the givers of those gifts.
Saying thank you doesn't make me feel better, exactly. It makes me feel sustained. It makes me feel that I will survive this; that I have been helped thus far, and that somehow I will make my way through this trackless waste of grief into my future.
No longer shared
I don't know what that future holds. I know it will be different from the past, and different in a way that is entirely unwelcome: I am alone. No longer do I share my days and my self with the husband who was the love of my life.
And yet, in the midst of this almost unbearable emptiness, there is a presence: the presence of the friends and neighbors, pastors and doctors who cared for us, and who continue to care for me. And I am grateful. Only by the help, and in the company, of these men and women can I hope to arrive wherever it is I am going. Thank you, I say, piling up another little pile of rocks. Thank you.
Margaret Kim is a graduate student in Christian theology and ethics at Duke University.