At the drugstore in early December I saw yet one more commercial gimmick to fuel the madness of the retail season. Sold as a set, the package contained reindeer antlers and a red “nose” to decorate the car. A few days after Christmas I laughed out loud when I saw a vehicle with only the red nose, which looked kind of broken - like it’d been through the punishment of an automatic car wash a time or two or three. The ridiculousness of it all seems somehow a visual metaphor for the seasonal fatigue and exhaustion that at some time probably plagues most of us, if we’re really honest.
When I’ve led grief groups that have met into and beyond the holidays, I’ve always noticed the “before and after” look of the participants. In the days before Thanksgiving it’s almost like they’ve strapped an extra 50 pound bag of anxiety, anticipation, and fear on their backs.
But when we gather again after the New Year, everyone looks different - most look better, everyone looks relieved. In very open moments of sharing and debriefing about the holidays, most agree that what they’re feeling is an overwhelming, cleansing, soul-satisfying sense of relief that it’s all over for another year. And, in case anyone out there needs permission, it’s entirely okay to admit we feel relief when the holidays are past, especially when we’re grieving.
Relief is surely not exactly what the angels had in mind when they proclaimed the good news of great joy that is Christmas. Basically we’ve created a secular culture around the holidays that’s more about worldly celebration than sacred rejoicing. We set ourselves up for physical and emotional disappointment - expectations that have little to do with reality, seasonal experiences that never quite measure up, gatherings that leave us dissatisfied - wanting more or better or whatever. Small wonder relief is usually so welcome...
When we grieve, navigating the holidays may feel a little like an Ironman challenge. We swim, bike, and run a long, long way – across the deep water of our pain, up and down the hills of our grief, through the challenges of our sometimes complicated families. It's no wonder then, whether we medal or not, that we’re both exhausted and relieved when we’ve stayed the course and finished the race for yet another year.
Relief is a good thing because it shows us what we’re made of. It means there’s been some tension that’s eased or a situation that’s been resolved or that we’ve measured up in the steadfast endurance department. Relief is about exhaling again – do you feel like you've held your breath for most or part of the season?
When we step away and take a backward look at our holiday experience, we see that we’ve grown through our grief. We recognize that we’ve got the stamina and stuff to withstand a challenging time of year without our loved one. We give ourselves a pat on the back because we’re still upright – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In our heart we hear God whisper, "Well done."
God applauds us on our victory lap. God honors our courage with new hope and a larger vision for the future. God blesses us with greater strength and the spiritual fortitude to see us through to the end of our grief. God is faithful.
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
1 Corinthians 10:13 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the strength of your testing. Amen.