December’s festivities are tempered with sorrow for some. My mother passed away December 10, my father December 12, and my grandmother Christmas Eve, each in different years. In more recent years a college friend and our only family dog died on December 21. My brother once commented that he just wanted to cancel the whole month.
The death of a loved any any time of year can shadow the whole Christmas season as we miss our normal interactions with that loved one. Grief begins as a flood but slowly transforms into a stream that occasionally overflows its banks. Even several years after a loss, it’s not abnormal to be caught off guard by a memory or a longing leading to a good crying jag.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that there is no one right way to celebrate Christmas. That’s true not only among different families or individuals, but even within the same hearts in different years.
When someone is grieving over the holidays, they may not want to participate in some of the “normal” happy pastimes. It’s not that they don’t ever laugh or enjoy gatherings. But as Sherry said, “I am enjoying the traditional holiday celebrations, and at the same time they move me to tears, sad tears for things that have been lost this year. I am singing the music, and yet I’m tired of the froth of jingling bells and pa-rumpumpum.” I remember almost wishing that we still observed periods of mourning with wearing black or some sign of “Grief in progress” — not to rain on anyone else’s good time, but just to let people know there was woundedness under the surface. Just as physical wounds need tenderness while healing, so do emotional ones.
Other events can cast a pall over Christmas: illness, job loss, a family estrangement, etc. One Christmas we were all sick as dogs, and my father-in-law had just had a major health crisis and wanted us to come up from SC to ID to visit. There was just no way we could drag ourselves onto a plane until antibiotics had kicked in. But a few days later we did go, and if I remember correctly, that was the last time any of us except my husband saw him alive. In retrospect we were glad we went, though it wasn’t the merriest of Christmases. A good friend grieved over “ruining” her family’s Christmas by being in the hospital with a severe kidney infection. Lizzie wrote about visiting her husband in prison for Christmas. Quilly commented about being homeless one Christmas.
If you’re grieving this Christmas, don’t feel guilty if you’re not quite into the “froth” this year. Give yourself time to heal. It’s ok to pull back and have a quieter Christmas. There may be times to go through with some holiday festivities for family’s sake — and, truly, those times can help keep you from the doldrums.
Perhaps a new tradition commemorating your loved one might help. My step-father and sisters who live near my mother’s grave go out together as a family to put up a little Christmas tree there. I’m too far away to join them, but every year on the anniversary of my mom’s death, I have a private little moment of remembrance. A family we used to know whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver requested that their church host a special service in December for those who have lost loved ones in that way. Some men from our former church participated in a biking event together in memory of our pastor who died of liver cancer.
On the other hand, don’t feel guilty for enjoying Christmas. Experiencing joy shows no disrespect to your loved one or your circumstances. Your loved one would want to be remembered but would also want you to be happy. Sherry shared how making a list of reasons to celebrate Christmas helped. Look for the good things to rejoice in. My two friends mentioned above, Lizzie and Quilly, mentioned reasons for rejoicing in the midst visiting prison and homelessness. E-mom left a valuable comment that we can treasure up the memories of good Christmases to tide us over the not so good ones, and then look forward to better things ahead.
As I mentioned before, the first Christmas was not all about the froth, either. It was messy, lonely, and painful, yet out of it was born the Savior of the world and the hope of mankind.
If it weren’t for the hope that Christmas represents, I wouldn’t be able to endure the losses. The Christmas carol “O Holy Night” shares “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” comforts, “Now ye hear of endless bliss: Joy! Joy! Jesus Christ was born for this!…Now ye need not fear the grave: Peace! Peace! Jesus Christ was born to save.”
The baby in the manger didn’t stay a baby. He was no ordinary child: the only begotten Son of the Father came to earth for a special mission. “Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth.” He taught, He healed, He lived as an example, but His main purpose in coming was to take sin away by bearing it Himself on the cross some 33 years after His birth, so that all who believe in Him could have their sins forgiven and live with Him in heaven some day. I have the hope of eternal life and the hope of seeing my loved ones again. Biblical hope isn’t tremulous: it’s a confident expectation.
But eternal life doesn’t begin at death: it begins the moment God’s gift of faith is received. We have hope not only for life after death, but for joy and peace in the midst of sorrow, for help, grace, strength, love in this life as well. “Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift.”
Rejoice in that hope and promise. Draw near to Him who has borne our griefs and carries our sorrows until grief and sorrow are done away forever.
(This post is a blending of a previous post from the archives and a newspaper article published in 2011.)