Grief comes in all different sized packages. Our grief journey started with the sudden deaths of our sixteen-year-old son, Mark, and his friend, Kelly. Thirteen years later, I still wish I could erase mid-November through mid-January. Whether you are grieving loss through death, a broken relationship, a prodigal child, loss of health, holidays often magnify the sorrow.
Like many families, we reserved special gifts and fun surprises for the Christmas season. We loved all the glitz of the holiday, the lights, decorations, the anticipation of a white Christmas and our house rang with Christmas music as soon after Thanksgiving
as possible. We enjoyed the special times with friends and family during our Christmas Eve Open House but we especially loved our Christmas Eve communion service. From the first year of our marriage Sharon and I had shared communion on this night of nights and it seemed to seal the life-driving force of Christ's calling.
On our way home from the hospital on that horrible July night of our son's death, I grabbed my wife's hand and whispered, “Christmas, what will we do with Christmas?”
As I prepared Christmas messages for our congregation, unfathomable grief opened my eyes to the pain and blood that surrounded the birth of our Savior, God's only son (Christmas Pain, 93-101). Sharon wrote in her journal:
Journal Entry, Sunday, December 19, 1993. Chuck's message gives me permission to step back from the glitz of Christmas without guilt. For some reason it helps me to know that the coming of Messiah was a time of pain and weeping. Jesus did not come as a conquering king but a suffering servant. The shepherds were watching over temple sheep that were set apart for slaughter as sacrifices. God chose for Jesus to be born into the rule of a cruel, brutal man. Herod had killed every member of his family that he suspected of disloyalty. The arrival of the Wise Men from Iran and Iraq terrified Herod. He was so frightened by their search for the baby who would be king that he ordered every baby boy under the age of two to be killed. Matthew 2:17-18: “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.' ” This terrible loss was prophesied in Jeremiah 31:15. O God, you knew. You knew. Somehow that comforts me. There are no accidents. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is told that a sword will pierce her soul as a result of the birth and life of this child. O God, what did Christmas really cost?
(Treasures in Darkness, A Grieving Mother Shares Her Heart
, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., Page 178-179)
We soon learned that to climb out of this dark abyss, we needed to accept that life would never again be the same. We had to find a new level of normal. Friends who had walked this way before us told us that we needed to prepare for this holiday, intentionally change traditions, and focus not on what was best for others but what was best for our family. In her book, (Treasures in Darkness, A Grieving Mother Shares Her Heart
, Sharon describes how we learned that the Christmas story itself can give strength
through the holiday season.
As the world around me laughed and anticipated a joyous Christmas filled with packages and food and family, I wished we could skip from Thanksgiving to the middle of January. I pleaded with God that He direct my steps through this quagmire of sorrow. I listened carefully as Chuck described the first Christmas as a season wrapped in pain, not fancy paper and bows. Blood and death covered that holy season. Eternal life could not come without such anguish.
Journal Entry, December 20, 1993. The Christmas story and Chuck's message overwhelmed me with a new understanding of who you are and what you did at Christmas. I'm trying to focus on the choice Jesus made to be a suffering servant and that what He is asking of us is not more than He Himself has done. But the ghost of grief is stalking me every minute, and I am weak in my own strength. I have so much I want to do for my family. I will not let the enemy use Mark's death to rob us of Christmas. But I don't know where to begin. Psalm 86: Give me an undivided heart - where I will not be forever torn between missing Mark and trusting you. Deliver me from the pain of the grave.
…I didn't think decorating would be a problem. But as I approached the attic I started to cry. With each box I moved to “get to” the decorations, I cried harder. I found one of the boys' Star Wars men and I cried. And then I found the decorations. On top was Mark's stocking. When I saw it, I laid my head down on the box and sobbed. Lord, why?
Journal Entry, December 22. Chuck told me we don't need to do this - decorate. But I said, “Yes we do. I want to recognize Christmas. We dishonor our son if we don't recognize his Savior's birth. We have to lean into the pain.” Chuck pulled me down beside him on the sofa and said, “Then just sit here and cry for a while; don't try to hold it in.” Finally, as he and young Chuck got the tree ready, I sorted through the decorations. I put most of them back. The stockings won't go up this year. Daniel put decorations on the tree with a smile, even when he found Mark's picture. This is all surreal. But we're getting through.
Safe Place of Comfort
Journal Entry, December 23. We're following the advice of those who have walked this pathway before us, and we're changing our traditions. When friends realized I did not have the energy or desire to prepare a Christmas Eve buffet, they asked if they could prepare and serve all the food so that we could still gather together on such an important night. I am looking forward to being with [the larger group] tomorrow evening, but a dinner tonight will be my private gift to my family. Lord, in answer to my plea to help me experience the joy of Christmas Your way, You opened my eyes to treasures I can give to each one of my precious children and husband - the pictures, the story our friend wrote, the birthday letter Mark wrote to Chuck. You are leading me to use some traditions to create a safe place of comfort and to freely let go of other traditions without fear. Today I wept as I prepared all of Mark's favorite foods, but smiled through tears as I remembered him coming in the back door, stretching his long arms to hang on the entry to the kitchen, and grinning with anticipation of eating hot Syrian bread, dripping with butter. I wished I could see him digging into the stuffed grape leaves one more time. Then I chose to imagine Mark at the banquet table in heaven with You. So, Lord, I'm preparing a special Christmas dinner with all of Mark's favorite foods, and we'll think of him enjoying the bounty of Your grace while we enjoy the bounty of our Christmas table.
We had read that the anticipation of a holiday, anniversary, or birthday was often worse than the actual event; so one purpose of our family dinner was to create new traditions before Christmas day, hoping to ease in to the pain of Christmas.
Journal Entry, December 24. Well, Lord, here I am. Christmas Eve. Running until I drop. Trying not to think. But I feel this might be the most important Christmas of my life. Mark's first Christmas in heaven. Our first Christmas without our child.
The Treasure of Holiday Presence
[Jesus said,] I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:29
No matter what your loss, choose to lean into the pain of Christmas and ask God to open your heart and mind to the presents that glow in the darkness of sorrow. And you may learn that the best present of all is the promise of His presence.
Dr. Chuck Betters is the pastor/teacher of MARK INC Ministries. His messages can be heard on www.oneplace.com. Visit www.markinc.com where you can order the message he preached the first Christmas after his son's death, Christmas Pain, #93-101. You can also order the book, Treasures in Darkness, A Grieving Mother Shares Her Heart
, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2005.
Sharon W. Betters, Treasures in Darkness, A Grieving Mother Shares Her Heart
(Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 2005) 178, 181 - 186.