My parents died six months apart. Grief has become my new companion. When you’ve experienced major loss in your life good people try to comfort you with the assurance that grief is a process. The idea being that all processes have a beginning and an end. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m grateful for caring people.
However, during the holidays, especially for those of us on the grief journey, this process is the loneliest of places. Your reality feels like it has been eviscerated, hollowed out, and all you hear are the echoes of your loved ones who have passed on.
Dealing with grief is different for each individual, family and community. Memories of laughter and great times easily combine with the pangs of emotional isolation and empty tomorrows. The holidays for the grief-stricken shine a bright light on the chasm separating the living from the dead. I think about my brothers and sisters around the globe who, like myself, are still dealing, up close, with their grief. My profession and training has hyper-conditioned my first impulse to reach out and help. Now, my educated impulse has been tempered by a realization of the fragility of human existence. Venturing into the soul’s dark night, knowing no comfort but perseverance and patient friends, we confront our flaws, our secrets and our reason for being.
I walk my familiar paths as a different person. I have been impregnated with new meaning. I try to hide my new condition but every conversation, every introduction finds me wanting to share my news. I am not seeking sympathy nor to bring others down. Simply put: this is who I am now. It doesn’t matter if I numb myself, ignore or acknowledge the new meaning that is now deep in my flesh. The oneness I shared with my parents is still there but different. Arriving at this difference dawns a new calling – the calling to “become.”
This unwelcome invitation is fraught with the fear of forgetting; forgetting those who no longer sit at the holiday table around the Christmas tree or football altar/couch. Thankfully, I have learned that the structure of life does not allow you to forget having been a child – you merely grow into your adulthood. In other words, grief transitions us from where we are to where we need to be. Those who seek to avoid grief remain forever its captive.
What to do? Celebrate! Take advantage and surf the merry momentum of the holiday season. Stories created the holidays. If it works for you reread the Christmas Story; it’s about new life in the midst of terrible circumstances. Persecution, poverty, infanticide, exile and fear are all major themes in this story. However, the story refuses to end because of bad times. I’ve learned that you have to keep trying, even if there’s no room in the inn and you end up in a manger.
Celebrate good triumphing over evil; babies being born. Celebrate that bad times have no advantage over better times, except that which we allow. Celebrate that you are alive and can become. Learn to celebrate that you will become more, not less; and you will find yourself learning to “move on.” It’s OK to put those precious memories in the “less-lived in” parts of your brain. Don’t worry, the time will come when your loved ones will let you know it’s OK to close that door.
I know what I’ve written isn’t for everyone this holiday season – I’m glad about that. But I do know there are plenty of parents, children, lovers, friends and even foes whose lives have been impacted by loss and grief – we’re all just looking for a way to connect with someone who understands. I get it now.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Rev. Livingston is the former pastor of Mandell United Methodist Church in Austin.