When we grieve, the holidays can seem like a kaleidoscopic emotional blur. Our spirit spins. Deep within our being we feel the chaotic contradiction of sorrow and seasonal joy, sadness and holiday cheer, loneliness and festive gatherings.
A kaleidoscope operates on the principle of multiple reflections. Usually there are two or three mirrors inside so that when the tube is rotated the beads, pebbles, and bits of glass within create an arbitrary, uniquely symmetrical pattern with almost limitless variation of color. We hope to see a distinguishable shape or even a picture when we put our eye against the small opening. But there’s nothing predictable about a kaleidoscope—the image is as random as our holiday grief.
We are able to see something inside the cylinder of 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 we may prepare to host and entertain, or simply to be a guest at a seasonal celebration. Whatever our role, most of us probably brace for the occasions that evoke high emotion, even under the best circumstances. Grief will inevitably be part of our 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 loved one, no one’s experience of grief is exactly the same. If the family has lost its matriarch or patriarch, each child is grieving 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 utter heartbreak. For every loss there is a very personal grief.
When we are confronted with an idealized picture of what a family gathering looks like or what we think it should look like, as in Norman Rockwell paintings for example, we are easily convinced that anything less than perfection is somehow wrong. But what we find in real life 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 make the holidays at best a challenge, 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 have so carefully put aside or stuffed 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 loss of one we love. This is when forgiveness must be at the fore of our agenda for surviving the season.
During the holidays, it is likely that we will encounter someone who’s neglected us, someone who was a conspicuous “no-show” at the time of our loss, 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. They are generally the clueless ones who 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. What we can do that gets us pretty close to forgiveness is simply to let it all go. We can reframe our encounter with those who have been thoughtless or inconsiderate during the worst of our grief to include only the present moment. We may have to work at it because our heart sometimes has a long memory and holds on to perceived wrongs. Yet when we forgive we ease the wounds inflicted by the past and exchange our agitation and pain for the quietude of present peace.
We always prevail when we forgive, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37 NRSV).
This act of human grace calms our soul and reminds us of God’s forgiveness and faithfulness to us, especially as we grieve at the holidays. Forgiveness is the better part of love. It is the essence of Emmanuel, God with us, God present to us. It honors the memory of the one we hold dear and grieve and moves us toward reconciliation and joy. Forgive, receive the presence of God, live forward.