Grieving At Christmas
- Thursday, December 23, 2004
Christmas. The word stirs up warm memories of childhood, beautiful scenes of winter, and little miniature paradises concocted with lights and greenery. I've always had a hard time relating to those who picture heaven as an eternal summer.
For me, the glistening snow, the glittering trees, the fellowship, the glow of a cozy home, the smell of pine – all this beauty simply cannot be left out of a perfect heaven.
And yet Christmas can also be a time of great pain. It's at Christmas when our failures and our losses seem most poignant. The marked joy the season is supposed to represent can serve as a stark contrast to the pain reality may have thrown at us that year. Perhaps seeing the excitement of children tears at our own loss of innocence. Or the emphasis on family and fellowship puts a spotlight on our loneliness. It is no surprise that with Christmas comes increased rates of suicide.
One of the toughest losses to overcome during the Christmas season is death of a loved one. It seems so unfair – so heart wrenching – that at the time of year set aside for celebrating we must endure the incredible loss of one we hold dear. My family experienced this hardship on a personal level this December when my 86-year-old grandmother died after a long struggle with Parkinson's Disease.
Her struggle with the debilitating disease was lengthy and painful. It resembled nothing of what we hope our latter years will look like.
In contrast with the hardship she and the family endured is a black-and-white photograph displayed among several others at her wake. It is a photo of her and my grandfather, who passed away almost forty years earlier. The photo was taken in 1950 – their first Christmas as a married couple. She is sitting on the couch, and he has his arm tenderly around her shoulders. He's looking down at her, his new bride, and she is looking directly at the camera, a sweet joyful smile spread across her lips. In the corner, cut off by the limits of the camera's view, you can see the branches of their very first Christmas tree. A "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree my mother always calls it. Indeed it looks sparse, but it sparkles with all the charm of a humble "first Christmas".
The photograph is such a sweet moment of joy and dreams fulfilled. It goes back to a time when Christmas is everything we long for it to be. As I stare at that old picture, studying the features of a grandfather I never met, it hits me that perhaps the reason Christmas stirs such bittersweet feelings in us is because it represents the heaven we all long for but, in this life, can never quite attain. Just like this black-and-white "dream Christmas," our dream life is at best, a fleeting moment, captured in a still frame and tucked away in our memories. As time passes, attempts at fulfilling our innermost longings of paradise, acceptance, and love result in frustration as our dreams elude again and again.
As we strive to recreate Eden, both at Christmas and year-round, we do all the things that are supposed to bring us happiness. When they don't go as planned, we cover up the imperfections or dress them up in pretty bows. We're determined that in this life, we're not going to get left behind, fall short, or miss out if we just "try hard enough." And by golly if we do miss the mark, we'll still make sure all appears well in front of the watching world. But then we are confronted with something as cruel as death, and the illusion shatters.
Fifty-four years after that lovely photo was taken, my grandmother is finally in the Heaven we all long for. She is not living a fantasy that falls short, but a Truth we were all meant for. She is with the Christ-child face to face, and with the husband she missed so dearly.
How much more joyful is Christmas when we accept the hope the first Christmas gave us as a reality? Fulfillment is no longer eternally out of reach. We can let go of the pressure to make it all happen by ourselves. Even in grief, we can rejoice in the real promise of Christmas -- the promise of God's saving love made tangible in Jesus. Through Him, and only Him, we can experience that "perfect Christmas" – if not here, then in eternity.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians 13:12
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