So many of us are struggling to catch our breath from our life circumstances this year.

One friend of mine with three kids lost her husband. Another lost a massive scholarship and college career when his university went under. Another friend lost the business she’d built for years. I personally endured a scathing career loss.

But as we whip mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving—or simply eye the vacant chair at the dinner table—what does it look like to be thankful in a year of loss?

I think of Job, pummeled as all he loved was ripped from him. He “arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped” (Job 1:20).

I don’t know about you, but all seemed as expected until that last little phrase. Utter grief is human. Worship in utter grief is not.

How to be thankful while you hurt

Author H.U. Westermeyer remarked, “The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving.”

I, too, believe Thanksgiving is an acceptable time to hurt, right alongside full-throated gratitude.

But how do we turn our hearts to be thankful, when our world feels like a wreck?

1. Understand gratitude is your link to healing.

A year and a half ago, around my son’s 13th birthday, we were told he might have lymphoma. Fear and grief overtook me as if on horseback.

But a friend who’d buried his wife had handed me a key: To be thankful is a lifeline in suffering.

I started small. Thank You that we’ve had him this long. Thank You for medical care. Thank You for the feel of his skin right now, in this hug.

But it was my son who suggested we keep a gratitude list. We wrote, then scrunched our gratitude on a neon-yellow index card tucked in our medical binder.

Though six weeks of horror resolved themselves in an absence of cancer—that notecard will remain with me until I die. It was our reminder of God’s constant nearness; His pervasive gifts and small graces.

That card tethered me to God’s goodness. To the reminder that He is for me.

2. Realize God grieves with you.

When your heart is blistered and someone rattles off “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28)—it can be jarring.

Though God creates good from every circumstance, He does not call “bad” good.

At the tomb of Lazarus—where Jesus knew He was about to conquer death—He still wept. In fact, the Greek term for Jesus being “deeply moved again” in John 11:38 also refers to “indignation,” “rage,” or “stern warning” elsewhere in the Bible.

Read: Jesus was possibly not only grief-stricken, but angry at what was clearly not God’s original plan for this planet. He did not call death and the utter brokenness of this place “good.”

How would your loss change if God were weeping and angry alongside you?

This helps me move from viewing God as enemy … to God as Friend in the trenches. It’s easier to thank God when I’m not trying to ignore the idea of him only taking from me.

Find holiday encouragement for you and your family in our Holiday Survival Guide.

3. Identify—and preach to—toxic thinking.

Even more than horrible events, I find my own responses alienate me from God. I marinate in lies I feed my brain. And those thoughts become me.

This makes sense considering what we know about neuroplasticity—the brain’s constant rewiring of itself. Once we’ve explored a way of thinking, it’s easier for our brains to travel there in the future. It’s a reality both for truth and for lies.

Sometimes we simply need to retell ourselves the truth, or have someone do it for us when we’re too weak. Think of Jesus in the desert, speaking truth to Satan’s cunning twists of Scripture.

When my brain thought about God, With friends like You, who needs enemies? I needed to reply,

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32).

Put your foot down on untrue, unbiblical, non-godward self-talk: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

This means examining the easy answers I shell out (“He won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “God says to rejoice!”). Thoughtful Christianity responds with thoughtful, holistic knowledge of God.

Do I believe truth frees me (John 8:32)—enough to pursue it relentlessly, to set fences on my thought life? To soak in what’s true and lovely, particularly about who God is (Philippians 4:8-9)?

4. Retrain yourself to see.

I once took an early morning walk, my Canon thumping at my side. Less than a mile in, I was thrilled to at last glimpse an elusive gray heron in a meadow. I snapped the photo I’d been waiting for.

Well, somewhat. Arriving home, I sighed. How had I not seen that tire-turned-volleyball standard nearby? Doesn’t any photographer worth her salt check her background?

But the heron had swiveled my eyes from everything ugly. I’d only seen what my lens had zoomed in upon.

I recall the words of John Piper: “The fight for joy is first and always a fight to see.”

The fight for joy is the fight to see God for who He is. To witness His goodness around me—though the edges of my world curl black.

This dovetails with truth seeping from Ephesians 1, which speaks of “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened.” We’re told this is how we’ll know the depth of our hope, of God’s power, of His resources directed toward us (verses 18-19)

As I choose to twist my focus to gifts piled around me, it’s as if my world is thawing. Opaque slabs of ice slip off gifts I’d minimized or forgotten.

I’m reminded that my identity, though wounded by loss, is not consumed by it. I am a citizen of Elsewhere, a cherished daughter.

5. Try these techniques, too, to be thankful.

  • Be aware of what sensory cues penetrate your heart over the holidays. Maybe like me, music worms its way into your soul. Or consider: What traditions are most meaningful to you? Surrender to those swells of emotion in order to thank God.
  • Connect, for real. It’s easier to be thankful when you’re not overcome with isolation. Maybe you could use a cup of coffee with an intentional friend so you don’t slip beneath the holiday hubbub. Perhaps they could just listen to your hurt. Tip: Ask for what you need from someone. Most friends are eager to help, but terrible mind-readers.
  • Find a place to serve someone else in need (unless you’re already overwhelmed!). This naturally increases gratitude, perspective, and connectedness.
  • And yet, say no to an unnecessary activity, so rather than doing, you can live this season wholeheartedly, from the soul outward. Busyness and the social expectation to feel warm fuzzies, may exacerbate a sense of grief, loneliness, and anger rather than quiet personal thanks.
  • Be intentional to reflect. Journaling prompts, time alone, or sinking into God’s Word can help you be thankful for the hope that’s yours. Strain for honesty, welcoming your suffering, questions, and grief into your relationship with God: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:6). As Tim Keller remarks, “All true prayer, pursued far enough, becomes praise.”
  • Remember everyone carries a backpack of troubles. So don’t let comparison siphon thankfulness.

Worship amid the wreck

When plans or hopes feel smashed against a brick wall, yet we decide to be thankful, is one of our greatest opportunities for authentic worship.

Job’s later words continue as the Braille on my blind days: Though He slay me, I will hope in Him (Job 13:15).

So this Thanksgiving, I’m choosing to pray,

I will continue to thank You; to tip my eyes up. I will seek to acknowledge every single gift You’ve piled around me all my life—and all the ones I’m trusting You’ll reconcile–until it’s one seamless “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

“We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all–all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help” (Hebrews 4:15, The Message)

Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Creative Choices for Holy Moments with Your Kids (Harvest House), releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at, and on Instagram @janelbreit.