Because of the rapid succession of holidays now upon us – Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year - November and December may feel like unending days of prolonged remembrance. Grief intensifies our experience of holiday events and occasions, whether at school or church or in the neighborhood. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we’re painfully reminded of our loss. We ask ourselves over and over again, “How can there be celebration without the one I love?”When we’re grieving, the days ahead can easily seem like a kaleidoscopic blur.
I dug a little deeper to try to find out why this image seems to illustrate our emotions at the holidays so well. A kaleidoscope operates on the principle of multiple reflection. Usually there are two or three mirrors inside so that, as we rotate the tube, the tumbling bits and pieces within - beads or pebbles and bits of glass - create an arbitrary, uniquely symmetrical pattern within a broad spectrum of colors.
When we put our eye against the small opening what we're really trying to see is a picture of the rest of our life. We hope that the rough, random bits and pieces will fall into some distinguishable order so that we can make sense of the bigger picture. But here’s the important part, the holiday part: the reason we see something inside the cylinder is that light enters the other end and reflects off the mirrors.
And it’s this same light - God’s light - that will, with absolute certainty, guide us safely through this season of celebration. When we grieve we hunger for light, we thirst for light, we’re starved for light. There’s going to be much more said about light here in the next days and weeks because light is the way out of our grief. It's light that enables us to live beyond our grief, especially at the holidays.
In the next few blogs we're going to talk about some of the unspoken things we may be feeling – the kaleidoscopic emotions only those who grieve truly understand. Perhaps in this place of unapologetic honesty we’ll find some clarification and solidarity with others who are having a similar experience of grief at the holidays.
The first thing most of us are reluctant to admit is that the holidays can cause us to agonize – sometimes more than a little - about the vast unknown that lies ahead. Because of the death of one we love, we’re forced to imagine or stage or participate in a holiday scenario that’s entirely new. We agonize over what’s to come - how things will be. In our heart we know it will never be the same again.
What most of us experience is that we live in the shadow of our own expectations, whether they’re realistic or not - we cherish both high hopes and dismal fears. Usually we find our holiday reality somewhere in between – things are not quite as good or quite as bad as we envisioned they might be. And though most of us can dream up some worst case scenarios, somewhere along the way we realize that agonizing is not the best investment of our precious emotional energy when we’re grieving one we love, especially at the holidays.
Even in the best of times, many of us dread the holidays because of the unavoidable pressure to do, buy, and experience urged on us during the season. Sometimes dread creeps into our heart as we begin to form a mental picture of what the holiday season will be like without our loved one. It’s entirely normal to be a little fearful when we’re grieving at the holidays. Yet most of us usually find that we’ve resolved much of our fear ahead of time – we’ve worked through our agonizing and calmed our sense of dread - and the actual holiday is not as difficult as we expect.
As we approach the season now upon us, perhaps the picture at the end of the kaleidoscope is one of reluctant celebration, hopeful anticipation, or joy-filled expectation. Whatever our vision, whatever our experience, the steadfast love and faithfulness of God will sustain and strengthen us, especially in the days ahead. God is with us as we grieve at the holidays.
Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread…for it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.
Deuteronomy 31:6 RSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the calm of your safety. Amen.