Christmas consideration

It is Christmas Eve and in the next few hours the annual festivities crescendo. The rush to purchase gifts, send greetings, welcome folks home for the holidays and prepare the holiday foods all collide with the reality of the limitations of time, distance and weather – and the unpredictable.

For some families that unpredictable comes this year with the loss of a loved one. A mother, a father, a child, a grandparent, or a spouse leave an empty chair that will be painfully noticed.

To these families the flip promise that “time heals all wounds” does not work. No matter how long it has been since the loss, no matter how long the loved one fought the battle to live, the pain will not go away, it will not take a holiday. They can not ‘just get over it.’

Kay Warren, wife of Rick Warren, the author of the best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life”, barely made it through Christmas 2013. That was her first holiday season after their son Matthew succumbed to the depression that had haunted him for years and committed suicide.

This year, two weeks before Christmas, she voiced her anguish with a post on Facebook that passionately requested “Stop sending cheery Christmas cards.”

Yes, Warren knows the intent of the sender. Yes, she has sent her own cards for years, but after the shocking loss of her son, she, like so many others who have lost a loved one, simply can not embrace the celebration as she once did.

For Warren, opening the envelopes to see pictures of happy, intact families only underscores her loss. Reading through the Christmas letters with the sender’s year end report on family accomplishments and activities only reminds her of what she could no longer write about.

Relief from her pain lifted momentarily when, she said, “I opened a card that said, ‘I can’t imagine how difficult this first Christmas without Matthew is going to be for your family; you are in my prayers.’ I forgave the other overly cheerful parts of her card because at least she had the sensitivity and kindness to acknowledge our loss and to let us know we were being remembered in prayers.’”

A cheerfully-wrapped package means nothing – not when the pain of loss cuts through everything with its dark, sharp knife.

Within hours, Warren’s posting went viral.

Thousands responded. Many wrote about their own pain at this time of year.

• “Lost my son at age 21 this past April …the same way you lost your son. Ugh. Deeply grieving and saddened. To say the least .”

• “Thanks for being open and real! My son died 10 years ago and I still have to walk out of stores when they play It’ll Be A Blue Christmas Without You.’ Every grief journey is different and no one should say or post negative comments about another’s journey. Love and empathy to all who suffer and struggle with the devastation that can follow death.”

• “It has been 42 years since my son died and it never goes away. I still hear his giggle when he opened his gifts and his smile. God is keeping him for me ‘til we meet again. Thank you for your post.”

• “We aren’t bad people for having these feelings. Just people in pain. Someday we’ll no longer know that pain, but until then we have others to lift us up when we are down.”

• “This is our eighth Christmas without our precious Ryan, who like your Matthew, loved Christmas. I still can barely open the mail. Those intact, happy families are painful to see.”

Warren and others suffering a fresh loss this season are not saying “stifle your joy,” they are simply saying please consider the emotional state of others.

Acknowledge their loss. Mourn with those who mourn and allow them the time and space to heal, even if it takes much, much longer than you think it should.

Or as Warren wrote, “Some are hardened by grief. They lose their ability to share in other’s happiness. That’s not where I am headed. I am doing my best to “’rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15).’”

Even though the story of the first Christmas begins with the excitement of angels announcing miracles and a long promised child, few mention how it ends with great sorrow. “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” Matthew 2:18.

As with that first Christmas, welcome the promised gift, celebrate with those who rejoice and sit in mourning with those who mourn. Whatever their emotional state, acknowledge their sorrow and sadness. Some need you there in quiet support, some need you in celebratory joy. Listen to both and give the gift of yourself.

(Joan Hershberger is a staff writer at the News-Times and author of “Twenty Gallons of Milk and Other Columns from the El Dorado News-Times.” Email her at