As I scroll back through my most recent blog posts, I notice they are a mixture of Christmas and grief stories. Christmas and grief? Somehow they don’t seem to go together very well, do they? But for some people that is the reality of this time of year.
Christmas and grief posts side-by-side… I am reminded of sympathy and Christmas cards arriving in the same mail, and being displayed together on the same shelf. Somehow it didn’t feel right. Messages of joy together with messages of condolence:
May you experience the joy of Christmas!
Praying for you in your time of loss.
Christmas can be such a difficult time for the bereaved. I will never forget the Christmas after Thomas died. Only six weeks after we’d buried our son, we were expected to celebrate Christmas. I just didn’t feel like shopping and cooking and observing all the usual traditions. Christmas didn’t seem very important at all. The world could rejoice. I wanted to grieve.
Left to myself, I would have ignored Christmas altogether. But I knew I had to make an effort. Our children needed some relief from the heaviness of our sorrow. They were looking forward to Christmas and they needed me to make it special for them. I couldn’t tell them, “I’m sorry, children, we’ve decided not to celebrate this year. We feel too sad.” I couldn't have looked at their disappointed faces.
Sometimes we have to do things we really do not want to do. I went Christmas shopping when I would have preferred to hide away at home. It was extremely hard work. I would stand for long minutes looking at shelves in shops, unable to decide what to buy. Many times I came home empty-handed. Once I retreated home after hearing a young baby cry in the next aisle. Finally, Andy came with me and he helped me buy everything we needed. That year I didn’t bother with Christmas cards. I hoped everyone would understand.
We were invited to spend Christmas Eve with friends. I really didn’t want to go. I kept refusing the invitation: “I know I will feel miserable. I don’t want to spoil everyone’s celebration with my sorrow.”
But my friend Sarah wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I would rather you were miserable with us than miserable on your own. You don’t have to pretend to be happy. We just want you to spend the day with us.”
So we spent Christmas Eve with friends. The girls dressed up as angels and everyone sang Christmas carols. It wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated. For a few hours, the sorrow was lightened and I took delight in my children’s enjoyment of the day. And I was grateful for friends that had wanted me, sorrow and all.
I smiled on Christmas Day and pushed my sad feelings deep inside me, where our children couldn’t see them. I only lost control at one point. After Mass, Andy lit a candle in memory of Thomas. We knelt down in front of the altar. Andy took my hand and we prayed together and I felt the warm tears slip from my eyes and down my cheeks.
When I woke up on Boxing Day, I was aware that a big burden had rolled off my shoulders. I’d made it through Christmas Day. I had smiled and I hadn’t spoilt anyone’s celebration. I’d even felt a few tiny moments of Christmas joy.
I think again of those cards, sympathy and Christmas ones all mixed up together. At the time, I thought the Christmas cards were so inappropriate. But why do we send such cards? We want to send messages of peace, joy and hope to our friends and family. And I realise now that the sympathy cards contained similar prayers. We all need and want peace, hope and joy, especially the grief-stricken.
While we are grieving, we yearn to feel at peace, and that comes from accepting what God has allowed. We need to suffer joyfully and willingly instead of fighting the sorrow. And we hope… we hope for so many things: We hope we can get through another day. We hope the pain will eventually disappear. We hope our interest in life will return. We hope our suffering has meaning. We hope we will survive. And most of all, we hope one day we will reach Heaven and be with God. Our tears will be over, and we will be reunited with our lost ones.
I remember looking at Christmas cards with their pictures of baby Jesus in the manger. Thoughts of what I’d lost would rise up inside me. My baby wasn’t alive like the beautiful baby on the cards. We weren’t rejoicing like Mary and Joseph and the angels. The cards offered me no comfort.
But maybe I should have looked at those images and thought, "Jesus, because You were willing to enter the world as a baby, one day I will be reunited with my own babies... Thomas, and all my lost children. One day we will all be together in Heaven with You.” I still wouldn’t have been able to smile or feel excited about presents and celebrating… but I might have felt just a little hope.
Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe Christmas is the season for the broken-hearted after all.