I mentioned a few weeks ago how my childhood Christmases have been categorized as being of the “Norman Rockwell” variety.
I did grow up enjoying idyllic holidays. Year after year we would sing as a family around the Christmas tree or sit on the hearth in front of a blazing fire watching holiday movies together – the house filled with delicious smells and festive decor. For me, Christmas lived up to the lyrics purporting It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
But there was one very sad Christmas, and it has informed the way I view the holidays and the emotional impacts on those suffering a loss or enduring hardship. Because, quite frankly, Christmas can be the most difficult time of the year.
I was almost 12 years old. I remember exactly what I was doing that December afternoon – watching an episode of the soap opera Passions (not a sanctioned TV show for the daughter of a Baptist minister; DO NOT TELL MY PARENTS).
The phone rang.
I was home alone with my brother who was sleeping; he had just been diagnosed with mononucleosis, which explained his unrelenting fatigue. I kidded him about this endlessly, joking it was from having a girlfriend (mono often being called “the kissing disease”). I had gone so far as to cut paper lips out of red construction paper; I had taped them all over his bedroom door before he arrived home from university.
When I answered the phone, I was devastated to learn one of my sisters had gone into pre-term labour.
This was in an era without cell phones and I wasn’t able to tell my parents until they called to say they were coming home from work.
I woke up my brother.
I remember Amy Grant’s version of My Grownup Christmas List playing on the radio.
I remember crying.
I remember the supper we ate that night: broiled pork chops, whipped potatoes, and peas. I remember everything tasted like sawdust.
I remember getting into the car to drive to the hospital in a blizzard; watching the snow hit the windshield, it felt like we were driving through a snow globe. The giant hill leading up to the hospital was treacherous. The minister coming to visit my family couldn’t get his car up the hill – he kept sliding back to the bottom. Eventually, he gave up and parked his car at the base of the hill, and simply walked the rest of the way.
My infant nephew didn’t survive, stillborn just a few days before Christmas.
I remember going to my sister’s home while she and her husband were still in the hospital. The crib was set up in the nursery with homemade blankets hanging over the side. There were presents under the tree for the baby-to-be.
Christmas Day that year was gorgeous – crisp and cold with a perfect white blanket of snow. I remember leaving the house to go for a walk through unplowed streets while arrangements were being made with the funeral home. On Christmas Day.
This is a tragic story for so many reasons, but the proximity to Christmas makes the rawness of it all even more palpable. Because pain at Christmas is a special kind of pain.
I love posting about cheerful, uplifting holiday topics. Christmas is a time of great hope and joy, especially for those – like me – who celebrate Jesus’ birth and what that means for the future. Yet it can also be a very difficult season.
For those grieving a loss or struggling with unforeseen challenges, battling anxiety, burdened by past trauma, struggling with physical, financial, or relational tensions, or questioning the future, the pain of life has the potential to overshadow everything else.
So this year, as much as we’re able, let’s aim to be kind, mindful, and a true encouragement to those in our lives who might be struggling. Let’s leave our hearts open to meeting people where they’re at – whether that’s a state of joy or grief. Let’s be willing to acknowledge the pain others may be facing and journey with them.
Hard emotions don’t need to be (shouldn’t be!) wrapped up in fancy paper and bows and stuffed under the tree. We don’t have to say: It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Really and truly it’s okay to say: This is hard or I still grieve the passing of a loved one, or I didn’t expect this reality for my life.
There is no expiration date on grief. There is no prize for saying everything is “fine” when, in reality, the opposite is true.
If you are struggling this Christmas, I pray you find peace and comfort; but, also, I hope you recognize that lament and grief have a place at Christmas, too.