On the 12th of December, exactly thirty years ago, my mother was in a house fire that resulted in severe burns over 80% of her body. She lived for thirty days in the burn unit of a regional hospital before succumbing, from December 12 to January 11.
Suffice it to say that the Christmas Holy Season is not my favorite. For years I could not listen to Christmas carols without hearing the tinny labored versions played in the elevator of the hospital. I dreaded Christmas cards that updated me on the Perfect Families of my acquaintance that had a Perfect Year and were Perfectly Happy. To this day, I do not allow a Christmas tree inside my house unless it has no lights on or near it.
I am one of an untold number of people for whom the winter holidays, Christmas, New Year’s, Epiphany, are emotionally draining. People who have lost loved ones, whose finances have changed or whose families have experienced divorce, deployment, unemployment, or trauma of any kind. For people like us, the holidays are not just "not much fun," they are a time of remembered hurt, deepening despair and amplified loneliness.
Over the years, I have learned a few things about how to do more than "get through" the holidays – how to find meaning and some solace in The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
1) Grieving is entirely unique and personal. I may meet someone who has had a similar experience of loss or change, but my experience of grief is unique. No one feels it like I do – even if they can in some small way relate. (For this reason, I will be using a personal pronoun - "I" - in this article)
2) Greif is a river. I can try to stop it from flowing but it will find its way out somewhere. If I do not give it a place to flow out, it will come out when I least expect or want it. So, I give myself permission to feel sadness and loss. It is normal, natural, and authentic.
3) Death is not the only legitimate reason to grieve. Sadness comes from loss. When Christmas doesn’t look like it did when we were kids, we feel loss. When Christmas didn’t look like we think it should, we feel loss. Job loss, change in family structure, illness, dementia, deployment, or just changes in long standing traditions are all valid reasons to feel loss and sadness during the holidays.
4) Grief is part of, not other than, all other emotion. I can feel loss and sadness in the midst of the joy of the Christmas lights. I can be grateful for the presence of my kids, and also miss my Mom.
5) I am never alone. Whether or not my friends understand my pain, they want to be present for me. When I look around the room at a party, I am looking at other people who are sad, I just don’t know it. And I am the beloved child of a God who suffers with me, walks alongside my pain, and comforts me with a love that passes all understanding.
Out of my grief, I have come to value the yearly tradition of a Blue Christmas service. This service is a Christian church service that is designed to help us find words for what we are feeling, to say prayers and sing songs that name our experiences and our emotions, and that remind us that even though we are not "Holly Jolly" like the rest of the Christian world, we are not alone. We are surrounded by other people feeling just as we do. And we are loved by a God who knows our suffering and bears our burdens with us. This year St. Michael’s Episcopal Church and Trinity Lutheran Church will hold this service in the evening on the first Sunday of Advent (November 29 at 6 p.m.) at St. Michael’s. Pastor Brenda and I would love to have you with us in person, or to pray for you by name, if you are unable to join us. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Rev. Shay Craig, Vicar St. Michael’s Episcopal Church