When we grieve, the holidays can seem like a kaleidoscopic emotional blur. Deep within our being the chaotic contradiction of sorrow and seasonal joy, sadness and holiday cheer, loneliness and festive gatherings makes our spirit spin.
A kaleidoscope operates on the principle of reflected light. Usually there are two or three mirrors inside a tube that when rotated, the beads, pebbles, and bits of glass within create a random, uniquely symmetrical pattern with anb almost limitless variation of color. When we put our eye against the small opening, we hope to see a distinguishable shape or even a picture. But there’s nothing predictable about a kaleidoscope—the image is as unpredictable as our holiday grief.
We see something inside a kaleidoscope because light enters the other end and reflects off of the mirrors. It is this same light, the light of God’s presence, that guides us safely through this season of celebration. When we grieve we hunger for light, we thirst for light, we are starved for the light that illuminates our way out of grief. At the holidays we live to follow the light that leads us to a brighter place beyond our grief. That light is Emmanuel, God with us, God present to us.
At the holiday season. perhaps we prepare to host and entertain, or attend a seasonal celebration. Whatever our role, most of us probably brace for occasions that evoke high emotion, even under the best of circumstances. Grief will inevitably be part of our holiday gathering with friends and family.
The pain of our loss is easily exacerbated by holidays. Even if those who come together are grieving the same person, no one’s experience of grief is exactly the same. If the family has lost its matriarch or patriarch, each child grieves differently. By the same token, no one’s grief is the same as that of the surviving spouse—for better or worse. If an entire family is grieving the loss of a beloved child, there may be many shared moments of heartbreak and joyful remembrance. For every loss there is a very personal grief.
When we see a picture that idealizes the gathering of family at Christmas—think for a moment about the paintings of Norman Rockwell—we are drawn into the portrayal of a multi-generational, nuclear family sitting around a dinner table or around a Christmas tree. Those in the family appear to be loving, joyful, and somehow at peace with one another. The image is one of a perfect holiday celebration.
What we find in real life, though, is that each family, whether biological, blended, or chosen, has its own unique dynamic. In many families, dysfunction, addictions, in-laws, out-laws, and the step-everyones can make the holidays at best a challenge, and at worst a disaster, with or without the extra dimension of grief.
Our feelings are especially vulnerable at the holidays, especially when we grieve. All the small resentments, hurts, and anger we carefully put aside or stuff down somewhere deep inside us may bubble to the surface. When well-concealed emotions spill over in unexpected outbursts, they express nothing more and nothing less than the pain we are feeling because of the death of one we love. This is when forgiveness must be at the fore of our agenda for surviving the season.
During the holidays, likely we will encounter someone who has neglected us, someone who was a conspicuous “no-show” at the time of death, a relative who could not “handle it”, or someone who said a thoughtless word we will forever associate with them and the death of our loved one. We may be thrown together with others who have chosen simply to ignore our pain and act like nothing happened. Generally they are clueless because they have not yet experienced the death of a loved one in their own lives.
Our pain and sorrow may not allow us to meet these “others” where they are with our unconditional forgiveness because often our heart has a long memory and holds on to perceived wrongs. What we can do that gets us pretty close to forgiveness is simply to let it go. When we encounter those who have been thoughtless or inconsiderate during the worst, we stay in the present. When we forgive, we ease the wounds inflicted by the past and exchange our agitation and pain for the quiet of present peace.We always prevail when we forgive.
Forgiveness is an act of human grace that calms our soul and reminds us of God’s forgiveness and faithfulness to us, especially when we grieve at the holidays. Forgiveness honors the memory of the one we grieve and hold dear. Forgiveness moves us toward reconciliation and joy. Forgiveness is the better part of love because it is the essence of Emmanuel, God with us, God present to us. Forgive, receive the presence of God, live forward.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.