Holiday Grieving

I do not remember when Grandad was first showing signs of illness, I was only a kid, after all. In fact, I hardly remember any of the dates from that time. Looking back, I realize how hard it all was on the family, the anxiety and tension that was palpable in relationships yet the source of which was a mystery to a boy just emerging into his teen years. I do remember that it was not long before Christmas when Grandad went into the hospital for the last time. 

We all gathered as we always had at Grandma and Grandad’s house for Christmas dinner. There was, I am sure, the great spread of food including the date nut, tapioca pudding, but when Grandma started passing food down both sides of the table and when Grandad at the other end, inevitably juggling two plates as they arrived at his place, was to tell her to “pick one side or the other” there was no one there. Actually, I don’t know who was seated there, I doubt if it was empty, it may well have been my dad. But Grandad was not there, he was in the hospital. He would die two weeks later. 

John William McNamara 1915-1983

Although I was 14 years old, an age that today I would expect a boy would remember all sorts of details of their life and many do, I remember only a watercolor of impressions and feelings from that time. People close to us had died by that time in my life, relatives, the woman next door to my grandparents who sometimes looked after me as a little child, but this was my grandfather who lived just up the street. He had always be there in my life. We could walk up to their house, yell through the mail slot when they didn’t respond fast enough to the doorbell. He had always smoked cigarettes, Luck Strikes, and that was what finally got him, filling his lungs with malformed cells and making breathing and living too hard to bear.  

That was 35 years ago. This Sunday Grandma, his wife, will be 100 years old. She still lives on her own (with wonderful and gracious help from many) in the same house we had all those Christmas dinners in. That first Christmas was so hard without Grandad there and every Christmas since has been difficult, I know, for Grandma, my mother and my aunt. Just a few weeks ago we celebrated and laid to rest my 94 year old great aunt, Grandma’s little sister.

Twenty one years and one week after Grandad died our son, his namesake, John William McKenzie Brady was born. Mack was named after both my wife and my maternal grandfathers. 1William McKenzie Braybrook. Both men went by “Bill,” but at one time or another both were also called “Mack.” It was six years ago this New Year’s Eve, one week short of thirty yeas after Grandad McNamara died, that Mack died so swiftly. 

Our family is not particularly unique in this gathering of winter passings. Even excluding cold related deaths, more people die daily in the winter months than in the summer. 2In the Northern Hemisphere. I am not sure if the inverse (but same weather conditions) is true in the Southern Hemisphere. Some of it is attributable to winter illnesses, particularly the flu and depression, and much to the elderly and the very young who are more vulnerable at low temperatures. The reality is that many of us enter Advent thinking not only about the coming of Christ, but our departed loved ones. 

It is a positive sign that every year I see more and more posts and articles reminding us that many are grieving, depressed, or just plan sad at this “happiest time of the year.” For those of us who grieve, I believe the two best bits of advice are these:

  1. Be present with us. You don’t have to say anything, just be with us, accept us as we are. 
  2. Help us remember our loved one. We miss them and while you may not have known them, ask us to share with you and join us in remembering them. We may well cry, but they are tears of remembrance and are sacred. 

Yet perhaps it is Advent itself that we most need to reflect upon for comfort and assurance that this world is not as it should be, it is not the end, and we have the Promise that in Christ all things will be made new.

Even non-Christians know that we are approaching Christmas, but it is surprising how few Christians know that this is the time of Advent, which precedes the liturgical Christmas season, and even fewer realize that Advent is not about preparing to commemorate the birth of Jesus, but rather it is preparing for Jesus to come again “in power and glory.” While both terms mean “arrival,” adventus is Latin for the Greek parousia which, in the church, refers specifically to Jesus’ triumphant return and the Day of the Lord. Even fewer Christians realize that the Day of the Lord, a phrase which goes back to the Prophets, refers not to Sunday, but to the day when God will judge the world.   

Isa. 2:12 For the LORD of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up and high.

17 The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,
and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;
and the LORD alone will be exalted on that day.

Isaiah’s declaration that “a child has 3It is the so-called “prophetic perfect,” it is in past tense (technically “perfect aspect”) even though it is a future event. That God will do it is so certain, the prophet has used the perfect aspect to describe it. been born for us, a son given to us” is the hope, the promise that even as God’s judgment comes upon this world, those who remain faithful, those who have suffered so much will be delivered into joy. The broken, cheating, sick, harmful reality of this world will be overcome in the Day of the Lord and those who have been cheated, who grieve, who have been wronged will be restored, comforted, and healed.

Isa 9:1   But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish…
2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The encouragement, comfort and assurance, of Advent is that the birth of that child is just the beginning of this promise. We have to affirm the reality that we still live in a world in which there is suffering and grief and many of us feel it all the more acutely at this time of year. But Advent reminds us that God continues to work in this world even as he has prepared for us the world to come. The Advent of the Day of the Lord, the coming of God’s justice, God’s comfort and peace, is present with us and before us.

In other words, this is NOT the end. This is NOT how things should be and God will NOT allow it to remain so. We walk in darkness and live in a land of deep darkness — the darkness of our depression, the darkness of our loneliness, the darkness of our sin — yet upon us has shone a great light.

I light a candle every time I am in church and almost every night. I light a candle in prayer, I light a candle for Mack, I light a candle because it is dark, I light a candle because the Light came into the world.

  • 1
    William McKenzie Braybrook. Both men went by “Bill,” but at one time or another both were also called “Mack.”
  • 2
    In the Northern Hemisphere. I am not sure if the inverse (but same weather conditions) is true in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • 3
    It is the so-called “prophetic perfect,” it is in past tense (technically “perfect aspect”) even though it is a future event. That God will do it is so certain, the prophet has used the perfect aspect to describe it.

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