Falling Back on Ritual in Times of Loss

November 25, 2020, by Kristin Neva

A week after Todd was diagnosed with ALS, we took our children to the beach. Almost-one-year Isaac pointed to seagulls flying over Lake Michigan. Four-year-old Sara dunked up to her neck. Isaac splashed near the shore under Todd’s watchful eye. Todd leaned over and kissed Isaac on the head.

Would Todd live long enough for our baby to know how much his dad loved him? I snapped pictures of them, aware the photos may be the only things the kids have to remember him by.

I wrote in my journal, “I’m thankful for the time we have, but it’s a painful kind of gratitude.”

Fast-forward ten years, and Todd is still here but completely paralyzed. While there is still good, life is hard and it only gets harder.

November has been a rough month. In addition to the political division in our nation and the health crisis our world is facing, we’ve experienced personal loss. Todd’s father passed away at age 86 from cancer.

Also, Todd’s health continues to decline, and the results of a clinical trial of a stem cell treatment that had given me a glimmer of hope turned out not to be the homerun they were hoping to deliver — at least not for those advanced in the disease progression. Another dream dashed.

As loss piles upon loss, we bring the weight of that grief with us to the Thanksgiving table.

It was also a weighty time for our nation in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of thanksgiving.

The United States was torn apart by civil war. There had been great loss of life at the Battle of Gettysburg earlier that year. Riots had broken out in Northern cities as men refused to go to war. Approximately four million Americans were still enslaved. On a personal level, Lincoln and his wife were grieving the loss of their son, who had died of typhoid fever the year before, and Mary Lincoln was battling mental illness.

In spite of national and personal turmoil — or perhaps, because of it — Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

In the text of the proclamation, Lincoln goes on to note some of the good that still remained, such as laws being obeyed and harmony prevailing except in the theater of military conflict. Life was bleak in light of the loss the nation was facing, and yet this proclamation commenced the annual tradition of thanksgiving that has endured for over a century and a half.

Our hearts need this national holiday, especially when the world around us falls apart. Perhaps it feels forced, and we just need to go through the motions, but sometimes that is all we can do.

Ritual is what we fall back on when our feelings aren’t there.

This year, I’m thankful for what we once had as we grieve our losses. I give thanks for what remains, even though it’s a painful kind of gratitude.


P.S. Listen to Todd’s take on Thanksgiving from his 2015 Sermon

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