Monthly Archives: December 2014
Christmas morning. It’s 5 a.m. and I am awake, not to the sounds of Santa Claus visiting our two ‘heart grandchildren,’ but to a growing sense that Jim and I are living within the true Christmas miracle, “Emmanuel,” God with us.
We are visiting at the Seattle home of Aaron Ausland who was married to our 25-year-old daughter Krista before her death while they were volunteering in Bolivia. Shadowed by profound sorrow during the bleak mid-winters of the first few Christmas seasons, I found solace in the modern translation of words from Psalm 51 that a friend sent.
“Heart shattered lives…by no means escape God’s notice.”
But this was more a hope than a sensed reality. There’s not a lot I remember about that first Christmas Eve, except that shortly before trying to get our families to a church service, the dishwasher backed up into the sink with a major plumbing issue. Already in such anguish over the absence of Krista, this relatively mundane inconvenience while preparing a special dinner plunged me into deeper distress. For the next few days, I just went through the motions of Christmas. No joy. Just emptiness.
SIXTEEN YEARS LATER
Finding how life has unfolded for Aaron and our family gives me a deeper trust in God’s faithful presence, the promise of Christmas.
So much goodness abounds. First, Aaron eventually returned to Bolivia where he met and married Gabriela, a compassionate, beautiful, intelligent woman. Her strong love for Aaron includes embracing us as extended family, a generosity of spirit that gifts our days. They live nearer since recently returning to the Northwest after working with World Vision in Colombia.
They have thoughtfully given us their bedroom for our visit and we are sleeping under an afghan lovingly knitted for Krista by my husband’s mother. She too has passed away.
During Christmas Eve dinner, Aaron and his sister show me the hand-made felt tree ornaments created by their mother Linda when they were children. She died during Aaron’s college years from breast cancer and he has called me his heart-mom ever since. Three months later I was also diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer.
But their home abounds with love. The losses become a part of their daily gratitude for each other. Their children, 9-year old Thiago and 4-year old Ava, fill their home with exuberant joy. They shared their tradition of reading from a rich collection of children’s Christmas books each night of Advent, culminating in the story in Luke of baby Jesus birth. Both children knew every detail in this biblical account, securely confident that the celebration of Christmas centered on God’s love for all people. Of course, they also looked forward to Santa’s coming, leaving the universal milk and cookies.
Aaron, who writes about his struggles in faith after seeing his wife’s violent death when their bus plunged over a cliff, walks with a quiet confidence and seasoned hope. He now serves as Chair of the Board for the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, along with his ongoing work with World Vision, primarily with an innovative project with youth in Rwanda. I have survived five years after another bout with breast cancer and live grateful for each day.
I am sharing this story because I remember how it seemed unimaginable in the early years of loss that life could unfold with joy-filled days again. Such is the miracle of God’s
Peace to each of you this Christmas Day!
Do you find that family rituals during holidays often increase joy, but also have the power to accentuate sorrow?
One of my favorite family traditions is the lighting of our five-candle Advent wreath on the four Sundays before Christmas. Advent comes from the word “adventus,” meaning ‘coming’ and the spirit encouraged is ‘expectant waiting.’ It orients us to prepare for the future with a confidence born of trust. The lighting of the 5th candle on Christmas Day offers a tangible act of gratitude celebrating the the birth of Jesus, called Immanuel, meaning “God with us.”
But when a family feels immersed in grief, it’s hard to imagine “expectant waiting” to be a positive emotion. Instead, especially during the first few Christmas’s after the loss of a loved one, it’s easier to almost dread times when our culture encourages “a Merry Christmas.” Our memories of past Christmas family times feel shattered by the reality of loss. Similar emotions surround festive days celebrated by families from all faith traditions. We’re all acutely aware of the empty place at the table.
“The last thing I felt like doing was decorating our house after Hunter died,” recalls Diana Graham, whose teenage son died the previous summer. “But I’m grateful my daughter kept mentioning, ‘Mom, let’s get the boxes out and put up our Christmas tree.'” She helped me remember how important such rituals are to other children in the family, perhaps especially during times of loss.”
To this day, over 15 years after our daughter Krista’s death, when we open the box of tree ornaments and hold ones she crafted as a child, or see ones with photographs with her brother and sister, my heart still stops momentarily. Of course, it’s possible to no longer keep these for the tree. But it seems far preferable to have moments of sorrow than ever try to erase her from family memory.
Facing our Fears
It’s intriguing to me that the British author C.S. Lewis, in his book A Grief Observed, understood how often such anxiety is our companion during loss. He candidly expressed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”
But what I also love when reading the Christmas narrative are the first words attributed to angels when speaking with Mary, and with the shepherds. “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”
“Be not afraid” ?
Good news? Great joy? During sorrow, we’re rarely able to think of the future with hope. Instead, our hearts break recalling memories when the one we loved was near.
Such guidance involves an opening of our heart to trusting life again, and a conscious effort to not allow fear and dread to dominate. Instead, the Christmas narrative encourages a spirit of “bold expectant waiting.” Good will come again. Or as one woman who had lost a child years ago assured a newly grieving mother when her only son died, “You won’t always feel this bad.”
A faith (not a feeling) that, in time, if we allow our hearts to continue to trust and receive love, life will again hold much that is meaningful and good. Such a choice carries the power to replace fear.
Many parents have shared rituals that offered comfort in their remembrances, especially in the early hard years. Most are simple acts that nurture their sense of continuing bonds. One father mentioned that every Christmas he goes to his son’s gravesite and brings a small Christmas tree with battery lights. He talks to his son, sharing his everyday life. Since Krista loved all birds and animals, we often bring a peanut-butter infused pine cone with bird seed to place at her grave site.
For Dianna Hartvigsen, it took a conscious effort to reweave their family’s way of celebrating Christmas. For years she lived with shock and nearly overwhelming sorrow after the brutal murder of her 20-year-old daughter Dawnya by a disgruntled former employee at a Burger King restaurant. “I couldn’t imagine going out and buying stuff after this,” she recalls. Instead, she began a new tradition for their four other grieving children in their blended family.
“Dawnya loved literature and writing and won a Washington State poetry contest her senior year in high school,” recalls her mother. “I decided to give each of her brothers and sisters a Christmas book in her memory, something I could imagine Dawnya would want to give. I thoroughly enjoyed looking for just the right book for each sibling.” Some are books with beautiful illustrations, like The Polar Bear Express, The Mitten, Stranger in the Woods, and The Christmas Troll.
Some introduce them to the ways others celebrate, like The Amish Christmas, Christmas Day in the Morning, or The Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center. “They love the books and look forward to what I might select, so I’ve done this now for twenty years. I always write a short blessing for them in the book too. Now they read them aloud to their own children, and it’s kept the joy in Christmas and a way to remember Dawnya.”
Are there any rituals you’ve found give comfort and strength during these days of celebration?