When Grief Holds Hands with Gratitude

Remembering the Life of Michael Gerson

Sam Bush / 11.22.22

In the back of the Book of Common Prayer, there is a section titled General Thanksgivings in which the common blessings of life are offered to God in thanks. Things that will inevitably be mentioned around countless Thanksgiving tables this week — the splendor of creation, family and friends, “accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.” But then the prayers take an unexpected turn. Right in the middle of a list of gifts and good fortunes comes the line, “We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.” It sounds like something a character in the Beatitudes would pray — the poor in spirit, the pure in heart — but no one who is actually in their right mind. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever thanked God for any failure that didn’t eventually lead to success.

Then again, there’s Mike Gerson, the beloved speech-writer and journalist who burst onto the Mocking Scene three years ago after a sermon he gave at the National Cathedral. Gerson attended Wheaton College with plans to attend Fuller Theological Seminary for graduate studies when he was tapped by Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship to be his speech writer. From there, he would become a fixture in Washington, serving as George W. Bush’s chief speech writer before becoming a regular columnist for the Washington Post. Last week, at the age of 58, Gerson died of cancer and has since been the subject of countless tributes. Each one touches on Gerson’s profound sense of gratitude despite a life marked by depression and cut short by a painful disease. Of all the editorials he produced, the most beloved and widely shared were based on deeply personal stories of loss and the glimmer of hope that remains.  

Take, for instance, his piece on dropping his son off at college, an experience he calls “the worst thing that time has done to me so far.” What he valued most in life was taken from him, the moment coming “as surprising as a thief.” He acknowledges that the transition will be hard for his son, but boasts of having the heavier burden to bear. While this moment marks the beginning of his son’s adult life, he fears his own future cannot possibly be any better without his son close by. Even though Gerson’s grief is laid bare, he never drowns in self-pity. Instead, he is upheld by a life-vest of gratitude, writing, “In human relationships, the transforming presence of love is worth the inevitability of grief.” The most valuable lesson in parenting, he argues, is not patience or sacrifice, but humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story,” he says. “And it is enough.” Gerson also profoundly reflected upon life and mortality after his cancer diagnosis:

As I awaited to learn my fate, I noticed an effect on matter — an odd intensification of physical experience. Things around you offer more friction and hold your attention longer. Commonplace things like the bumps on tree bark. The light filtering through floating dust. The wetness of water. A contrast knob is turned, revealing the vivid pleasures of merely existing … This heightened awareness applies to strangers in the street, who suddenly have faces. An unsolicited smile, the obvious creases of worry or pain, engage your emotions. There is nothing more democratic than mortality.

Michael Gerson couldn’t help but allow his faith in Jesus to shine through these moments of darkness. One of his most notable speeches was in the wake of September 11 in which he wrote, “We learn in tragedy that His purposes are not always our own. Yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral, are known and heard, and understood.” Such words can’t possibly be interpreted as empty rhetoric, especially when considering Gerson’s history with depression. Somehow he was able to hold grief and gratitude together, trusting that God’s purpose was ultimately good even despite evidence to the contrary. His was a life marked by common tragedy — sending a son to college; mourning the death of his dog; living with a cancer diagnosis for almost ten years — but sustained by a prevailing faith to the point that everything, even failures and disappointments, was a means of grace. And it is enough.



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5 responses to “When Grief Holds Hands with Gratitude”

  1. Joshua Musser Gritter says:

    Thanks, Sam. Michael’s sermon at the cathedral has rested vividly in my memory. I’ve gone back to listen many times. What a man and what a life.

  2. Pam Burns says:


  3. […] When Grief Holds Hands With Gratitude: “In human relationships, the transforming presence of love is worth the inevitability of grief.” – Michael Gerson […]

  4. Dona Gallagher says:

    Had I not been led to the Episcopal Church (Anglican Communion) on my 9th decade, from Roman Catholicism(.from which I have much to be grateful)
    I would not know about Mockingbird & all it shares. Thank you!


  5. […] this is a good article about a fellow St. Louisan and Presbyterian who died last week: “When grief […]

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