In early December I saw yet one more retail gimmick intended to add to the celebration of the 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 aloud when I saw a vehicle with a broken red nose. Clearly it had been through the car wash one time too many. The tired, worn-out nose was an apt visual metaphor for the post-holiday fatigue and exhaustion that most of us experience, especially when we grieve.
In the days before Thanksgiving we brace for the strain and stress of a protracted time of forced festivity that triggers our worst fears, anxiety, and dread, even as we anticipate the best and worst of the impending season. After the New Year, with the holidays over and done with for yet another year, our first emotional response may be relief. We look better and feel better because relief is at once cleansing and soul-satisfying. And in case anyone needs permission, it is okay to admit that we feel relief when the season has passed, especially when we are grieving.
Relief is surely not exactly what the angels had in mind when they proclaimed the good news of great joy at Christmas. We have created a secular culture around the holidays that is more about worldly celebration than sacred rejoicing. We set ourselves up for physical and emotional disappointment—expectations that have little to do with reality, events that never quite measure up, and gatherings that leave us dissatisfied—we want more, better, or simply for the noise to stop. Is there any wonder that we experience a sense of relief when at last the festivities are over?
When we grieve, navigating the holidays can feel like an Ironman challenge. We swim, bike, and run a great distance across the deep water of pain, up and down the hills of grief, through the challenge of complicated family relationships. Whether we medal or not, we are both exhausted and relieved when we stay the course and at last finish the race.
Relief is a good thing. Relief shows us more of who we are and what gives our life real meaning and value. Relief means there is eased tension or a situation resolved. Relief affirms that we have measured up and prevailed through steadfast endurance. Relief is about exhaling if we have spent the holidays holding our breath in order to survive.
If we step away and take a backward look at the holidays, we see that we have grown emotionally and spiritually through a trying time when grief gravitates toward the worst of our sadness and loneliness. We recognize that we are still upright. We have proved to ourselves that we have the stamina and fortitude to withstand a challenging time of year without our loved one. We give ourselves a pat on the back and say, “well done”.
God applauds us on our victory lap. God honors our courage with hope and a clear vision for the future. God renews our strength and points us toward the finish line of grief. God understands our heart at the holidays and our prayers for relief, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress” (Psalm 25:16-17). God is faithful, the true source of every relief.
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