An Upside-Down Christmas, part 2: Grief
I used to design and write my church’s weekly bulletin, and I was aware that, for some, certain holidays brought with them sadness. But I believed that surely time healed all wounds. Sure, it was sad when someone died, but I thought it was morbid to dwell on it. I naively assumed people could let it go (long before we’d heard of Elsa) and focus on what they did have. My friend Tami lost her mom many years ago, but I didn’t understand her sadness on Mother’s Day—couldn’t she focus on the good memories instead of feeling sad? Or celebrate being a mom to her own children?
Well, maybe she could have (and she likely did).
But how wrong I was. And how sorry I am for all of the opportunities I missed to extend kindness and grace—because now I know.
I know what it is to wonder how I can possibly celebrate when the absence is so real, so gigantic, that the void itself becomes a presence. To question how to “get over it” when the only thing time has proven is that things still have not changed. My mom still isn’t here. And I still miss her. Hundreds, now thousands, of days without her. Exponential sums and moments of being without someone whose body is not here but who is never far from my mind. Granted, I rarely cry myself to sleep anymore. But I still cry. I still mourn. And it overshadows everything, colors it as surely as if a dark filter covered the lens.
The hardest moments are the ones that are supposed to be happy—the celebrations, the milestones. The days in which we feel an obligation to laugh, to have fun, and to hide the pain that consumes us. It’s because of the juxtaposition, the extreme disparity between expectations and what we’re really feeling inside.
Some of you have had big losses—the death of a spouse, a child, a sibling, a parent. The grandmother who raised you. The friend who knew all of your secrets. There are other losses, too. Divorce. Family feuds. Jobs requiring relocation. Budgets and work schedules that keep people apart on holidays. Unmet expectations. Joyful personalities changed by addiction or disappointment. These things are hard enough by themselves, but add in the other stresses most of us feel this time of year—money worries, anxiety about getting the right gifts and finishing dinner preparation on time, loneliness, not enough time—and it may seem impossible to bear.
I’m still—and will continue, indefinitely, to be—trying to figure this out. To make my way and hold tight to the sparks of joy, living in the moment and not the past or the future. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do have some ideas. The more we try to stuff down our feelings, the harder they fight to be seen. Maybe it’s time we welcome our sorrow. Flip it around and find the comfort that dwells on the other side of the pain.
It’s there. It really is. And I hope some of these ideas will help you find it.
Carry on. My mom was a giver like no one else I’ve ever known, much of it done in secret. She didn’t want the limelight, she just loved to find thoughtful ways to help. In her memory, my household established a new Christmas tradition. All month long, each of us is on the lookout for someone or something that could use a little help. It doesn’t have to be life-altering. It doesn’t have to be about orphans or the homeless or victims of disaster, although those are certainly options. It’s simply about looking for opportunities to give. We’re honoring my mom’s legacy by learning to give the way that she did. By telling our children about the ways their grandmother made an impact on other people’s lives so that she remains real and present in their minds. By cultivating the traits within them that are like her.
Each gift is presented (or provided anonymously) by the family member who thought of it. We don’t set strict budgets, just do what seems right and what we can afford. Gifts in previous years have included: donation of “wish list” books to an elementary classroom during a book fair (not my son’s own class, because he shouldn’t be one to benefit); paying the fee for my daughter’s friend to take the train to Chicago with a school club; my husband paying the bill for oil changes and tires for people he knows through his work at an auto shop; an envelope of cash for friends with small children to help supplement their Christmas buying; anonymous gift cards to an acquaintance who is out of work. Once I start looking, I see one need after another, and the more of them I respond to, the closer I feel to my mom.
If there isn’t an obvious tradition to continue, don’t worry. When you pray, ask God to point out opportunities and suggest ideas. My former neighbors lost their son, Henry, to cancer when he was six. I can’t change that. But maybe I could donate gas cards or games to a nearby children’s hospital for another family in a similar situation. My grandmother taught me to say the Lord’s Prayer every night before bed. I think of her when I sit down at night to pray with my son, knowing that just as she established that ritual in my mind, I’m helping provide a framework of prayer for my own child.
Write a special note. Chances are good that even if you haven’t experienced a deep loss, you know someone who has. Send flowers. Write a letter. Drop off cookies. There are lots of ways to let people know you’re thinking of them. But here’s the hard, potentially awkward part: don’t be shy. Mention the loved one by name. It’s a relief to be able to talk about it. To stop pretending it didn’t happen. To stop worrying that nobody else wants to know about your sadness.
If you have a sweet or funny memory, share that. And if not, just say that you’re thinking of them. You don’t have to—and probably shouldn’t try to—provide neat answers in an effort to make the pain disappear. It won’t. Just tell them you’re sorry. That you know how much they miss that person. That it’s OK to still feel sad. And that you care about them. Whatever you do or say, be genuine, and take your clues from the one who is mourning. Don’t force conversations, but don’t hide from them either.
Give a gift to memorialize someone, either for the person you’ve grieving or for someone else who is. Donate to a charity or church or school or organization in the person’s name. Perhaps you can continue a tradition that person started—buying a coat and gloves for a child in the community. Wrapping presents in the local toy drive. Donating a book to the library. If your aunt was known for her baking, write the recipe on pretty recipe cards (labeled “Aunt Sue’s Famous Poppyseed Bread”) and drop off loaves to friends so that they will always say her name when they make it. Go door to door in your neighborhood collecting canned foods and donate them to a local food pantry in that person’s name.
Don’t forget the friends. Our culture accepts that we will grieve a close family member, but often overlooks the friends, coworkers, students or an unmarried partner. My sister’s best friend passed away this year. Everyone was praying for the family, worrying about Teresa’s girls and husband. Of course. Sometimes I would forget that my sister was feeling a profound loss as well.
Occasionally I run into one of Mom’s friends in a parking lot or the baking aisle at Kroger. Until I see them fighting tears, I often forget. She’s missing from their lives as well. They wish they could pick up the phone to tell her something funny. They may not feel they have the “right” to grieve, but they do anyway. Acknowledge that: Thank you for loving her, too. Or she loved you, too, you know.
Tell stories. Let your kids hear about the time she left the sweet potatoes in the microwave through dinner and didn’t find them until the next day. Talk about the funny things that have happened. Point out which ornaments she gave you or describe what Christmas was like when your dad was a little boy. Plop a box of Kleenex in the center of the table if you need to. But let yourself remember.
Or don’t. There are times when sharing is the right thing to do, and times when you aren’t ready or able to “go there.” Give yourself grace. Allow yourself to do—or not do—what is right for you at that moment. And be aware that people grieve differently. My sister and I are very close and we both lost the same person on the same day. But we rarely feel the impact of that loss at the same moment. We both read the same book within a couple weeks. I could barely get through it, sobbing because it brought up all of my emotions. Kerry was fine. But then she has moments that I’m oblivious to, like when she fixes Mom’s recipe for stuffed peppers or rolls out some homemade noodles and she wraps herself in the contentment of showing her love for her family in the same way.
There’s not just one way to grieve. And there are plenty of different ways to honor someone. The only rules? Wrap your words and efforts with kindness and gentleness. Keep trying. And practice grace, both with those who may not know how to help you face your grief and with yourself when you fall short.
Do you have any ideas to share? I’d love to hear them.