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?
“One small step can change your life,” believes Dr. Robert Mauer, a clinical professor at UCLA School of Medicine and author of The Kaizen Way. He consults internationally with organizations and people teaching the potent force of kaizen, the Japanese concept of achieving great and lasting success through small steady steps. This idea, coupled with the wisdom shared from a grieving widow to “Just Do the Next Thing” offered a way of living during the early months of acute grief when sometimes it’s hard to even imagine facing the day.
It stayed in my mind before each hour’s reality, whether it meant buying groceries and cooking supper, grading papers, or making the decision with Susan (our oldest daughter) and Peter to go ahead with their East Coast wedding. Their marriage was exactly one month after Krista’s death and wedding invitations were already out. Other parents echoed this truth as they did the necessary small steps in daily living, whether this meant getting children ready for school, showing up at work, paying a bill, whatever loomed as “essential.” As one widower said, juggling the strains of raising three children alone, “We must mourn, but we must go on living.”
But I’ve also found through the years that the kaizen concept still offers a vital way of moving forward when inertia, inadequacy, or high stress feels paralyzing.
Next week, Jim and I will be going on my book tour in the South that involves a combination of very different speaking engagements in three states. Everything from presentations at medical centers, bookstore special events, several different church keynotes, plus a retreat, and large senior living communities. Some relate to Pilgrimage through Loss, some around cancer, and even one on my earlier book Bold Spirit.
It’s somewhat daunting.
A friend reminded me of earlier experiences with small-step wisdom when I lamented that this significant preparation has kept me from being focused on the blog. “It’s so discouraging because my hope was to write faithfully each week.”
“Write about how you’re feeling when overloaded,” she suggested, “and how small steps have made such a difference for you.”
So I reread a journal entry from three weeks after Krista died that included a list of 16 ideas of “What I can and cannot do.” One said:
Allow myself TIME and be gentle and patient with my own grief. Call on wonderful friends as needed.
Looking back, it seems this guidance of being patient with the depth of sorrow helped me relax. Healing came in gentle infusions of peace as my husband and I continued to re-engage in life day by day. Learning to understand the grieving process, step-by-step, often from authors or friends who walked in loss before us, helped.
British author C.S. Lewis, after the death of his wife Joy, wrote A Grief Observed where he probes the “mad midnight moments” of his mourning and loss where he first questions all he has previously believed. He eventually came to recognize the normalcy of grief in his words “Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.”
Today, my entry on “what I can and cannot do” could alter slightly to read,
Allow myself time and be gentle with my own limits. Call on wonderful friends as needed.
YOU have become friends through the pilgrimage blog. More than likely you understand the need to be gentle with oneself during stress. So I will trust that the irregular nature of the blog in the next few weeks will be understood!
But I want to stay in communication with you. To take the first step, I scanned for pictures through the wonderful Zemanta (a tip for all bloggers) and found this exquisite Asian staircase that symbolizes the beauty of small steps. Now excited, since I love artistic gardens, the next step involved perusing the book chapter that speaks of the Pathway to Strength and Renewal by Taking Small Steps Daily. Then memories came flooding in of how the nectar of friendships gave Jim and me both comfort and the courage to live with hope. The last action will be to push the button that says “Publish” even though in an ideal world I’d love time to revise and revise and revise…oh well!
Are there times when you know being more gentle with yourself might be essential? What small steps you have taken that have made a positive difference in your life?