When Christmas is Painful
Around this time last year, I was spending every day at the hospital with my mother, who was slowly losing her battle to live. I have written elsewhere about the unexpected gifts that came with her passing – all of my children safely home from college, the chance to say goodbye to her as a family, with prayers and a blessing from a dear priest who knew us well, and holding her memorial service in a long-closed, beloved country church. But even with these blessings, I knew the day she died that Christmas would always be different for me. You see, my mother passed away on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2012. Instead of our family tradition of Christmas Eve mass followed by a quiet dinner at home, I spent the evening in a lonely hospital room with my exhausted and bereft father until she finally left us late that night.
Yet in spite of the terrible sadness, I made a promise to myself that day that I would not forever after hate Christmas. It just seemed wrong to me, and I knew my mother most of all would not want me to lose the joy of Christmas because of her.
As the holidays approached this year, I began to think about how to deal with sadness in a time of joy. I do have days when I am filled with sadness, and just getting anything done becomes a huge struggle. At the same time, I don’t want to let myself be paralyzed by grief, and I don’t want to dampen the joys of others. Obviously, I am still “in process” and I don’t have everything figured out, but there are a few things that have helped me that I would like to share.
First, remember that you are not alone. As I thought about my own difficulties, I quickly realized how many other people are hurting. We all know people who are fighting cancer, who have lost a child, or who are going through a divorce or a loss of employment. Even if your pain is the result of your own mistakes, you are not alone. Billy Graham’s middle daughter, Ruth Graham, wrote a book entitled, “In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart” after she went through a second painful divorce. Suffering knows no boundaries, even among “the best people.” Reaching out to others who are also hurting can help to ease your pain.
Second, be merciful to yourself. Every grief and loss can bring recrimination – “if only I had called her more often, if only I had insisted that he go to the doctor, if only I hadn’t given up on my marriage.” If you are human, by the time you are even 25 years old, you will probably have done something that you regret deeply. If you can find a way to forgive others who have hurt you, try to find a way to forgive yourself. Also, try to be realistic about the demands you place upon yourself. If your time and your energy or your finances are limited, allow yourself to set limits on what you do for Christmas. Many people would rather get a phone call or a card than another gift that they won’t know what to do with. And if your efforts to make “the perfect Christmas” leave you exhausted and cranky, what will your family remember? My best memories are of fun times spent with family and friends, rather than any “perfect meal” or “perfect gift.” Talk about your plans ahead of time and decide which things are most important, rather than try to live up to everyone’s unstated expectations.
Finally, remember the real message of Christmas. People tend to think of Christmas as a time when everyone rejoices with their perfect families, and everyone gets along, has wonderful food and gets everything they want under the tree. But that’s not the message of Christmas. The message of Christmas is that God saw a world full of sin and pain, and had compassion on His people. He sent us a Savior, born in a manger, to enter into our weakness and sorrow, and bring us hope.