Some Holiday Memories Are Hard to Bear

Last night, I spoke to a grief support group at a Presbyterian church. Roughly 30 people were there; it was an intimate meeting, held in the church’s fellowship hall.

After my presentation, I chatted with a young mother who recently lost her infant daughter, and with an older woman whose husband has been gone 13 years. The evening reminded me, as if I needed reminding, that the holidays are rough for many people.

This will be the fourth Christmas since my wife, Renee, died after a five-year battle with cancer. And just a couple of years before Renee died, my mom passed away. In our family, Christmas always was a big deal. It included feasts, loads of presents, abundant laughter, and abundant affection. Much of that has vanished now.

Sometimes my memories, sweet as they are, are hard to bear. Just before Thanksgiving, I walked into a bookstore. I didn’t consider it Christmas season yet, and when I heard a carol playing over the store’s PA system, it caught me by surprise. The song was, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Unprepared, unsteeled, I was transported–or flashed back–to a specific Christmas program at the Christian elementary school my son attended long ago. That’s the carol the children sang that night. I could see John on the stage, a happy little tow-headed boy, standing alongside his cousins and dozens of other kids. I remembered Renee, healthy, both of us unaware of the limited time we’d have together, sitting beside me. She squeezed my hand. I glanced at her. She beamed with pride. Her eyes were wet.

Suddenly, in the aisle of Barnes and Noble, I nearly broke down. I had to rush out of the store, go to my car, and compose myself.

And I say this as somebody who’s had three previous Christmases and lots of blessings to help me heal. I’ve got a wonderful girlfriend now, who I love. I’ve got a great new daughter-in-law, who I love. My son still lives nearby; we’re as close as a father and son could be. And this Christmas I’ve got a brand new, seven-week-old granddaughter, who I’m totally bonkers about.

Even so, I struggle. The older woman I chatted with last night feels the same way. In my speech, I’d mentioned my Barnes and Noble episode. “I have my bookstore moments, too, after 13 years,” she said. “Not as often as I used to, but I sure have them.”

To those of you who’ve suffered painful losses, I want to say you’re not alone. Your sadness is OK. It’s part of the grief process, and is shared by millions of other bereaved spouses, parents, and children. Your pain may never totally go away, but it does gradually get more manageable. Your life does go on. There will be blessings ahead that counterbalance the pain. I have fewer meltdowns today than I had even a year or two ago.

For those of you who haven’t yet lost loved ones, try this holiday season to show compassion toward those who have, who may be suffering in silence. Take them a tin of homemade candy. Invite them to dinner. Give them a hug. As Paul wrote, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2, NIV).


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