Time of Joy and Pain:
Dealing with Sorrow in the Holiday Season
By Anne Robertson
Last month my grandfather died, on the anniversary of my father’s death, no less. And now it is the holidays, when America gears up for feasting and festival, joy and parties throughout the season.
The holiday times are supposed to be wonderful, which is probably why I get more calls from desperate and despairing people at this time of the year than in any other. When everything around us focuses on joy and home and relationship, those of us in pain feel it more acutely. The year my father died suddenly of a heart attack, the year of my divorce, the many years I was 1,200 miles away from any family member were all times that I wished the holiday rush would rush just a bit faster and bring me safely into the dullness of mid-January. Don’t make me look at the empty chairs while you flash lovely Norman Rockwell scenes on the TV screen. Don’t sing about cozy lovers by the fire while I sit here alone and discarded. Don’t show me all the joy of people opening Christmas gifts, when I can’t afford even to send Christmas cards. The holidays, for many of us, are not all they’re cracked up to be.
Yet the holidays come, and those of us looking at the empty chairs of loved ones past—those of us with hurting lives—need to find a way through. In my experiences of holiday loss, there are two things that have gotten me through.
The first of them is doing something different. The year my father died, our family decided we couldn’t face the tragedy on our own. So, that year we put out a call at our church for others who might like to abandon whatever they normally did for Thanksgiving and have dinner at church. There ended up being about 30 of us. Some were grieving losses as we were. Others were going to be alone otherwise, and still others just wanted to be with us. It was a great day. The year I got divorced, I spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas with inmates in prison, helping to brighten the days of others, whose holidays were even bleaker than mine.
The second, and for me more important, coping mechanism has been listening to what I think is the best Christmas sermon ever preached: How
The Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss. Although it’s not overtly religious, I find it conveys the truth of the Gospel better than just about anything else out there at this time of year. You see, when I am hurting, I want very much to be the Grinch. I want to take Christmas and all the trappings and dump it over the edge of a cliff. I don’t want the fruitcake (not that I ever wanted the fruitcake), the toys, the songs, the feast…none of it…and I don’t want it going on all around me either. I want to make it all go away, so my hurt will not be quite so raw.
But then, as I’m pulling my sleigh full of the joys of others up to the top of Mt. Crumpit to dump it, I pause and look back for a moment. And in that moment I see past the glitz and feasting, I look past my own heartache to really see what is going on. It isn’t what I expected. All those things that made my own pain so acute are, in fact, shadows. They aren’t what the holidays are really all about. Thanksgiving and Christmas are about God, not about me. They are about what God has done for the world, not about what the world has done to my life.
“And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’” The story of the Grinch never fails to remind me that the real celebration is not about who is absent from the table, but Who is present, and the One who is present with me in and through all things keeps me connected to all those I love, both present and past.
Both my father and my grandfather died on All Saints Day. Maybe this holiday season that message will sink in a little better. Of course I will probably shed a tear for the empty chair, but maybe I will also shed a tear of thanksgiving for the overflowing heart of God, who loved enough to come and live in this grief-stricken world as one of us. “Surely He has borne our grief and carried our sorrows;” surely He will bear them with us again, this season.
Copyright ©2004 Anne Robertson