When people say the holidays can be hard, they’re not exaggerating.
As magical and warm as Christmas and New Years can be (throw Thanksgiving in there for good measure) they can be equally lonely and cold, and on top of the memories of those we can no longer celebrate with, there’s the pressure of obligation to celebrate that adds a layer of self-judgment when we can’t live up to our past standards.
It’s a season that’s complicated and challenging for many, many people.
Please allow me to relieve you of some of your burden.
There will be other Christmases.
That’s the beauty of traditions, the beauty of holidays. They come around every year. So if you need to sit this one out, it’s ok. You’ll get to take another crack at it next time. And guess what? If that doesn’t pan out like it used to, it’s no problem. You can see how it goes the next year. And if you need to run away for a while, if the traditions bring back too many memories that you just can’t revisit right now, then you lace up those shoes and you run. There’s no way to predict how you’ll need to do this and it’s a bit like having to let a fever run its course. It often gets worse before it gets better. And the “worse” can feel like the worst thing you’ve ever felt.
But who wants to hear that, that it’s going to get worse before it gets better? That’s cold comfort for someone in the earliest, rawest throes of grief. There’s got to be a better answer…except there’s not.
People try to offer these “better answers” by giving greeting card adages but we know as soon as we hear them they’re not representing the sorrow of deep loss. It’s possible they simply can’t encapsulate it into something palatable by the general public, except that loss is a universal human experience, so there’s a built-in market for it. You’d think they would have figured it out by now. Thing is, if they set up a bunch of people in their “Sympathy” card department, half the staff wouldn’t show up and the other half would stare at the wall or accidentally put their lunch into the letter-folder to warm up.
A month after my dad passed away I set up an appointment with a counselor. As I sat in her office and explained the timeline and that it had only been a month, I could tell she was confused. Why was I there?
Wasn’t it obvious?
I needed her to tell me how to stop feeling so terrible. I needed her to tell me I was doing something wrong and here was the right way to process my dad’s death and the gaping hole made by his absence. So why was she confused? There was nothing confusing about it. She needed to FIX IT because this kind of pain is unbearable. I must be doing it wrong because I forget where I’m supposed to be going when I drive the car, I can’t taste anything but sugar, and even though my eyes feel like there’s a permanent layer of sand under my eyelids and they won’t stop leaking all the time even when I think I’m doing ok and not actually crying.
I’M NOT DOING OK AND YOU NEED TO FIX IT.
This must not have been the training she received at school. Because she did nothing to fix it. Nada. Buptkis.
She did take my money though. And I went back for non-fixing about four times.
All of this to say if you want to talk to someone, do it. If you want to cry into the phone while your friend just sits with you on the other end, call ’em. If you want to hack down fifty trees in your back woods, grab the handsaw and remember to take some Tylenol when you’re done.
Maybe you won’t ever want to do advent or Christmas or Easter or 4th of July or Thanksgiving or any other pre-existing holiday ever again.
That’s ok. Let other people work on those holidays. Now you have your own awful dates to mark, ones personal to you and those closest to you. The first holiday without her. The birthday or the anniversary. And once you get through the firsts, the kicker is that THERE’S ANOTHER ROUND of the same thing next year, another year of them not being here.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
This Sunday is the beginning of Advent, the preparatory month before Christmas. This week many Protestant churches will light the first candle of the advent wreath, the Sandler which symbolizes hope. Hope. Hope right now, are you kidding me?
For those who have recently faced a devastating loss, it’s almost profane to ask them to focus on hope for the week. If it’s not profane, it’s blind, because too often our definition of hope has been morphed into something that turns its back on reality. Reality is too hard to fathom at times, so we resort to rejecting it in favor of cliche. There are people who are unable to remain in the depths of their sorrow more than a few minutes before they fear it will devour them whole.
A candy coated hope will get the job done if it’s the only hope you have available.
However, if you define Hope as a much grittier, denser thing, something that glows even when surrounded by darkness, that’s something that makes more sense. When you think of Hope as the next small step, rather than a shining monument, that’s more doable. That’s the kind of Hope I can focus on, that’s the kind that is present even when muted and muffled by hardship and loss, and therefore I’ll be trying to turn my shoulder towards that Hope this first week of Advent.
Are you looking forward to this holiday season? Are you not looking forward to it? How will you carve out space for those who may experience it from a different perspective than your own? I’d love to hear your perspective.