Grief and pain are the price humans have to pay
for the love and total commitment we have for another person.
The more we love, the more we hurt when we lose the object of our love.
But if we are honest with ourselves,
would we have it any other way?
~ C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I was five or six years old, and it was Christmas Eve. At first I hadn’t seen it, but then Mom pointed again and squealed with delight, and I was sure I saw it! Santa’s sleigh and his reindeer had flashed across the night sky for a split second just as we were leaving my grandma’s house, and if it weren’t for my mom, I would have missed it! To this day I am almost definitely positive that I saw it, and the magic of that moment is something I will never forget.
To say that Mom loved Christmas would be an understatement. She took full advantage of the Christmas season. The decorations came out the day after Thanksgiving, and they didn’t get put away until after New Year’s Day. She loved singing carols, sending cards, and creating an atmosphere that felt magical. In the living room, our wall-mounted record player filled our house with classic carols sung by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Every year, my siblings and I drew names to buy gifts for one another, and she took each of us out individually to buy our presents. Many years, we’d end our shopping trip with dessert at the Sugar Bowl on Main Street.
Mom loved to bake Christmas cookies so much that we kept an extra freezer in the garage just for storing them. We started early and baked cut-out sugar cookies, thumb-print cookies with jam, and heavenly hash, a fudge-like candy with marshmallows and peanuts. Then we plated up the goodies and delivered them to our neighbors and friends. Mom loved doing this, and our neighbors looked forward to their cookie plates every year.
Money was tight in our family, but Mom and Dad always made Christmas special. Throughout the year we made weekly visits to the drive-thru at the bank, but I don’t remember ever questioning what Mom was doing when she’d put some bills in the container, send it through the tubes back to the teller, and say, “ten dollars to my Christmas Club, please.” All I really cared about was getting my sucker, finishing the candy, and then unrolling the looped paper stick to reveal a prize: a crinkled, square piece of paper. It wasn’t until years later that I realized what she was doing. Throughout the year she was saving up little by little, ten dollars a week, so she could buy presents and stocking stuffers and bake and give cookies to all our neighbors and friends. Christmas was her favorite time of the year, and she started planning for it eleven months in advance.
So it’s no surprise that now everything about Christmas seems immensely wrong. Memories of our loved ones have a way of attaching themselves to music, movies, smells, foods, and traditions. The Christmas carols and the baking and the shopping and the wrapping— all of it reminds me of my loss. At times I feel bombarded by the sights and sounds of Christmas, and intense sadness overwhelms me.
The first couple of holiday seasons after Mom is gone are all about paying attention to my energy level, my emotions, and my heart. I don’t send out Christmas cards to everyone the first year; instead, I send a handful of cards to the people who have walked with me on this grief journey and to a few of Mom’s friends. We make very few Christmas cookies, just enough for our family and so the girls can continue our tradition. I set aside time to be alone and grieve. It’s too painful to look at photographs, so I don’t. Brenna even asks me to take down Mom’s picture from a collage on our family room wall, so I do. I know that one day I will put it back, but it will take some time. Brenna colors a picture of Mom’s dog, Daisy, and we put her art work in the frame instead.
That first year, we don’t attend many social events or parties. We spend a lot of time at home watching movies. I do most of my shopping online. We hang a stocking on the mantel for Mom, and whenever we feel sad or remember the previous Christmas when we were all together, we write little notes and tuck them into the stocking. We talk in advance about what Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will look like. We decide to keep our Christmas Eve tradition of going to church and then having a fondue dinner at home, but we decide to do something different on Christmas Day. After opening gifts and having breakfast, we’ll go to see a movie. Going out on Christmas will probably feel strange, but I think it is exactly what we need. We need the familiarity of some traditions, but we also need to start some new and different ones.
We talk about Mom and tell stories. And for me, I find hope in the true meaning of Christmas. The previous year, after Mom was first diagnosed, a verse from the song “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” became my prayer for her.
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
God had made Mom’s way home safe. And the truth of Christmas is that Jesus opened wide our heavenly home. I find hope in Emmanuel, God with us.
One morning in mid December, I wake up to intense grief. I don’t want to get out of bed. I know the sadness needs attention, needs to be expressed, so I decide to do what I normally do when I need to have a good cry. Music has always been a powerful vehicle for expressing my emotions. Honest, well-written lyrics help me connect with my experiences and feelings in a way nothing else can, so I grab my earbuds and pull up the song “10,000 Reasons” on my phone. Every time I hear that song, it takes me back to that day in the hospital when Kari and I sang it with Mom. It makes me feel close to her.
This morning, however, I have some new thoughts. What if you open the blinds and let some light in? What if you make your bed, clean up your room, and sit in the chair instead of lying in bed? What if you make yourself a cup of tea and read a couple of Scriptures from your grief workshop handout? The ideas are all about moving forward and progressing in my grief. When I open the blinds it is snowing—our first snow for Christmas. I would have missed it. I drink my tea, listen to the song, and immediately the tears flow.
The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes
Bless the Lord, O my soul
O my soul, worship His holy name
Sing like never before, O my soul
I worship Your holy name
—Matt Redman, “10,000 Reasons”
This song connects me with my Mom in a powerful way, but instead of only revisiting that night on her hospital bed, my new way of grieving brings me into the present moment. I imagine Mom saying, “Yes, you can miss me and grieve—the love we have is so strong. But live today, Becky. Sing your song today.”
Each and every day, we can choose to bless the Giver of life, the One who puts breath in our lungs and a song in our hearts.
Reprinted with permission from Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy, by Becky Baudouin, Kregel Publications, 2017.
Order your copy here.