attending grief at Christmas
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?