It is oddly gratifying and encouraging that we live in perhaps a “golden” time for those who grieve and mourn. It is commonplace this time of year, in addition to the joyous posts of children on Santa’s lap and endless photos of cookies, to read posts by and about those who struggle to make it through this season, especially those of us who mourn the loss of a loved one. This is, I think, a positive result of the age of the internet and social media, the benefit of some being willing to openly share their hurts and feelings that makes all of us more aware and sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.
There was a time when all of society was far more aware of the fragility of life and the nearness of death. Prior to (let’s arbitrarily pick) 1940 or so, couples would have large families not only because of the needs of an agrarian society, but due to the inevitable taxation of disease and accident. Martin Luther, for but one small example, lost two children, Elizabeth and Magdalene. Luther alluded to the death of Elizabeth, “There is no sweeter union than that in a good marriage. Nor is there any death more bitter than that which separates a married couple. Only the death of children comes close to this; how much this hurts I have myself experienced.” 1Cited in the article, “Martin Luther, the Loving Father.” I would suggest that the death of a child is the more bitter, because Elizabeth and I know that either of us would gladly offer ourselves for our children, so that they might live in our stead. That choice is not one that we were given. It rarely is. While in those days in the not so distant past (and still in most of the world today) this reality was ever pervasive, today we are far more sensitive to the grief that others bear. That is a blessed thing.
So this year you might read essays about “what every grieving parent wants you to know this holiday season” and appropriate reminders that for many of us this is not always “the most wonderful time of the year,” but rather it may just be the most painful.
Mack was born on January 16, 2004 and died on New Year’s Eve 2012. I have often said to Elizabeth that in many ways we are blessed; all our painful anniversaries are packed tightly into these two months. Of course that doesn’t mean that we do not think about (and mourn) Mack all the time, even 5 years on. We do. We cannot help it and would not wish it away. To grieve is to remember, to remember is to love, and to love is to keep him near to us (even as we know someday we will draw even nearer to him).
As for this grieving parent, I do not ask that you not send me your family updates, pictures of your adorable kids on Santa’s knee, and your pup in antlers ready to take the sled down to Whoville to steal the roast beast. Please do! I may not open them or if I open them, I may not read them right away, but they tell me we are still in your life and we are grateful for that. I disagree with those who say you should not send such cards, but I do agree with them that we want our loss to be remembered. Blessed is the one who mourns with us, who says, “Our family is well and we are praying for you in what we know is a difficult time.”
Tears will come to me on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Just as they do on every day. So please do not feel awkward or walk away, just put an arm around my shoulders or give me a hug and say, “You are loved.” Be with me, be with us. Nothing more need be said.
Today we celebrate Advent and Christmas as a party, a festival of lights and laughter and joy. Our lectionary reminds us that the coming of the baby Jesus was the ushering in of the Day of the Lord. What we have forgotten is that “the Day of the Lord” is God’s judgment upon a sinful people and a broken world. This was a day to be feared, to be prepared for through confession and repentance.
Why do I mention this? Because those who mourn and suffer at Christmas understand perhaps better than most the “reason for the season.” We know to the core of our being the reality of this world, the pain and hurt that is woven into our human experience. This is what Jesus came to save us from and on Christmas Day we commemorate the beginning of that work. Remembering that does not diminish the joy of the season, but provides it with depth and texture and heightens our awareness of the importance of the work begun with his birth, continued in his sacrifice, and completed in his resurrection.
I Thess. 5:23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
25 Beloved, pray for us.
(The Epistle for Advent 3, Year B.)
- 1Cited in the article, “Martin Luther, the Loving Father.” I would suggest that the death of a child is the more bitter, because Elizabeth and I know that either of us would gladly offer ourselves for our children, so that they might live in our stead. That choice is not one that we were given. It rarely is.