For those of us who have lost a loved one in recent months or years, and for those of us who are facing--or have a loved one who is facing--a difficult diagnosis, this holiday season may feel overwhelming. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the holidays are powerful, evoking memories of our loved ones and reminding us of our loss. The emotions we have been dealing with on a daily basis will most likely be magnified as the holidays approach. So how exactly do we get through the most wonderful time of the year when our hearts are breaking and our world feels like it's been turned upside down?
I'm writing this post because I have lived this. And four years later, after the loss of my mom, I still feel my loss more acutely during the holidays. Mom was diagnosed with inoperable, incurable cancer just a few days before Thanksgiving, and I am convinced that my subconscious remembers this time of year. I am thinking about her more. I see the leaves turning color and falling from the trees, I feel the cold and I see the sky darken before dinnertime, and in the deepest recesses of my soul, I remember. I remember the fear and the pain and the realization that my life would never be the same again.
I'm not feeling the profound sadness and grief I felt four or three years ago, but the holidays are still tinged with sadness. And they are always evolving. As our kids and our siblings' kids grow, we see new faces around our table. This year, some extended family members are joining us for the first time. It will never be the way it was, but I am thankful and eager to embrace what is. I continue to do my best to let go of what I've lost and hold on to what I have, and to give thanks in all of it.
Here are a few tips I hope you'll find helpful as you navigate the next couple of months.
Be intentional. Spend some time thinking about what you would like Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day to look like. You may be tempted to say, "I don't know what I'm going to want on those days or how I'm going to feel. I'll just wing it and hope it all turns out OK." Trust me, this is not a good plan. We can easily find ourselves being ambushed by our emotions if we are not intentional about these days and do not come up with at least a tentative plan. Consider these questions and then have an honest conversation with your loved ones.
Be authentic. Be honest. It's OK to say, "I'm just not feeling up to attending the Christmas party this year. I appreciate your understanding." OR "I'm not up for hosting this year. Can someone else host?" OR "I would like to put up the tree, but I need some help. Would you be willing to come over and help me decorate the house?" And when you do make plans, give yourself an out. "I am planning to come to your cookie exchange, but please understand that some days are better for me than others. I may need to cancel at the last minute. I appreciate your understanding." As much as possible, be honest and don't worry about letting others down or offending someone. Most people will be understanding of your grief, and even if they aren't, you don't need anyone's permission or approval to do what is best for you during this season of loss.
Be present. You will be swept away by memories from the past, and you will at times be overwhelmed with anxious thoughts about the future. But as much as you possibly can, try to focus on and be present in the moment. When you are with friends and loved ones, engage with them as best as you are able. If you feel sad and need to cry, that's OK. Don't apologize for your tears. And if you find yourself laughing or feeling small bursts of joy, don't feel guilty. Feel your feelings, and lean into your pain. And express your gratitude to those who are walking with you on your journey.
Be realistic. Be careful not to place unrealistic expectations on yourself or on others. Don't expect that you will be able to "push through", "be normal", and "pull off the holidays" like you always do. And don't expect that others will be able to know how you feel, understand where you are coming from, or make the holidays easier for you. The reality is that this holiday is different. But with some thought and preparation, these days can be bearable. They won't be the best holidays you've ever had, but they won't automatically be the worst days either. Hopefully they will be a mix of sorrow and also joy, of grief and also comfort, as you surround yourself with loved ones during this difficult season.
Be expectant. Expect that these days will be challenging. But also expect God to be with you, to comfort you in your sadness, and help you through the hard moments. He promises to never leave us or forsake us. Embrace the true hope and promise of Christmas: "The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" (which means "God with us"). Matthew 1:23
Finally, consider attending a Holiday GriefShare event near you. These are one-night events designed to help you navigate the holidays after a loss. Some churches also host similar events.
In the Chicago Area:
Willow Creek Church - Handling the Holidays After a Loss - November 15th https://www.willowcreek.org/en/care/relational-resources/rebuild-grief-support/south-barrington
Holiday GriefShare: https://www.griefshare.org
Please comment below your suggestions or questions about navigating the holidays after a loss. We'd love to hear from you!
My husband, our daughters, and I were in Michigan for the August eclipse, dropping off our eldest, Kate, at college for the start of her freshman year. I actually thought ahead and ordered special eclipse glasses so we could look at the it without burning our eyes, and it was pretty cool to experience this solar phenomenon with a group of total strangers. The university provided panels with special filters so everyone could have a chance to look at the sun, and for several minutes in early afternoon, groups of people gathered in clusters all over campus squinting up into the sky, oohing and aahhing at the moon partially eclipsing the sun. We met up with our friends, who were also dropping their boys at college, and took turns passing the glasses around, trying NOT to look at the sun when we didn't have our protective eye-gear in place. (I accidentally looked directly at the sun, ever so briefly, and then worried for the rest of the day that I may have permanently scorched my retinas.)
The eclipse was definitely a cool thing to observe, but we all were surprised by how much light remained throughout, even at it's peak. We knew that from our location we wouldn't see a total eclipse, but at 83% I imagined it would look like dusk, or even 9 or 10 o'clock-ish dark. I guess I was expecting some shade of midnight blue, even half-expecting some confused owls and bats to maybe fly out of their daytime hiding places for just a few minutes. Instead, it was only slightly hazy, and some of the people in our group noticed some unusual shadows. I don't know if I would have even noticed anything different if I hadn't been looking for it. At one point, my friend Lynette and I talked about how remarkable it was that 17% light could overcome 83% darkness. Then we looked at each other, the spiritual significance of that sinking in. Seventeen percent light outshines eighty-three percent darkness.
I thought of Psalm 139: 11, 12:
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
I also thought about Jesus' words in Matthew 5:14-16:
"You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."
The light of Christ in us, no matter how small we may think it is, shines brightly in this dark world. When we love one another, when we serve our brothers and sisters, when we do good in the name of Christ, we let our lights shine and God is glorified.
Earlier that morning, before the eclipse, I had the opportunity to visit my publisher, Kregel, which is only about 30 minutes from Kate's university. They gave me a warm welcome, a tour of their facilities, and invited me to speak to the staff. I shared a bit about my background and my book, Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy: What My Mother Taught Me About How to Live and How to Die. As I talked about my own grief journey, I thought about the much anticipated eclipse that was just hours away. I shared how sometimes our grief and our loss can be like an eclipse. Sometimes our pain is so big and dark, it fills up the space around us in such a way that it makes it difficult to see God's plan, to discern His presence, and to feel His love. But those dark seasons do not change the ever-present, enduring love of God. He is still here, whether we can see him or not. He is still loving us, whether we can feel it or not. In fact, His love is so radiant and bright, it can't truly be eclipsed. It is powerful and consuming, burning through the darkness and pain that seems to hide it. And the thing about an eclipse is that it is momentary. It doesn't last forever. We will see the light of the Son again, and we will feel the radiant warmth of His love once more.
The eclipse itself was somewhat of a disappointment to me--it wasn't the show stopper I was expecting. But that day held some beautiful treasures for me. As I move into this new season of parenting a college student (and adjust at home to four instead of five), as I reflect on my grief process and the amazing ways God is allowing me to share my story, I am deeply grateful, I'm grateful for friends and family to share this journey with. I am thankful for a God who can never be eclipsed, whose love can never be overshadowed, and who is so awesome in power, people stop everything they're doing, in the middle of an ordinary day, to gather in groups and clusters all over the country just to watch His creative handiwork.
"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands."
About ten years ago I decided I wanted to live the second half of my life differently than the way I had lived the first half. During my school years and well into my twenties, I had lived my life largely driven by fear. I stuttered as a child and young adult, and fears of rejection, failure, and shame were my daily companions. For the most part, I avoided situations that caused me anxiety, and I said no to things I was afraid of.
My moment of clarity happened on a zip line. My husband and I had taken our daughters to Spring Hill Family Camp in Michigan, and we decided a zip line would be fun. It wasn't until I began strapping on my helmet and my harness, until I began to ascend the several flights of wooden stairs leading me up to the platform where I would have to JUMP OFF (I obviously had not thought this through), until I saw my precious daughters and my adventurous husband sitting on their perches looking at me as if to say, "Come on already--let's do this!", that I was confronted with my lifelong pattern of letting fear call the shots. Because of my panic, I said, "I don't really want to do this, so I'll just go back down the stairs and watch you guys from the ground." I don't know if it was the looks of disappointment on my daughters' faces, or the camp counselor talking me through my scary imaginations, or the fact that God had been preparing my heart for this moment, but I realized that as much as I wanted to say no, there was this other part of me that didn't want that to be the way the story played out. There was this other part of me that wanted to say yes, that was tired of being afraid and so wanted to be free. So I jumped. I said yes and I found that it wasn't as scary as I thought it would be. I said yes and experienced something new and exciting with people I love. And when I said yes, my daughters saw me be brave.
In the couple of years leading up to my zip line moment, I had begun saying yes to things that scared me: a volunteer position at church that made me editor and contributor for a marriage workshop newsletter, submitting some of my articles for consideration at newspapers and magazines, attending a writers' conference and meeting one-on-one with editors and publishers to pitch my work, and then deciding that I would give public speaking a try (after several people at the conference told me I should give it a go.)
I still feared rejection and failure, but because of the work that God was doing in my life--mostly through small groups and bible studies and the people in them who showed me acceptance and grace--God's love was reshaping my identity. In I John 4 we read that God's perfect love drives out fear, and as we experience His love (largely through loving one another), we come to know and rely on His love. I began to think differently., and instead of avoiding everything I was afraid of, I began to take some risks. I'd think, "OK, I may fail. I may be rejected. But even if that happens, God totally loves and accepts me as I am." I was getting used to this strange combination of anxiety and excitement, of fear and hope, and one decision at a time, I was saying yes to some things that scared me -- things I thought I could never do.
I've been surprised by how much I enjoy some of the things I feared so much. Not the zip line--that was not my thing. Didn't love it. But speaking to groups about topics I am passionate about? I LOVE doing that. Who knew? Well, actually, God knew. I felt Him gently nudging me, inviting me to try new things, and after I spoke in front of my first group and shared my story, I swear I heard Him whisper to my heart, "See! I knew you'd love it.""
On our recent trip to México to visit my husband's family, we rode in a hot air balloon over the pyramids of Teotihuacan. I was terrified all week leading up to this excursion, and it may seem like it was a brave thing for me to do. (I'm afraid of heights. And hot balloons.) But here's the truth...I went in the balloon because I was afraid not to. The thought of watching the people I love most get into a wicker basket that is tethered to a balloon with giant balls of fire inside and float up into the sky without me scared me way more than actually riding in the balloon itself. If something catastrophic were going to happen, I didn't want to watch it from the ground. But I have to tell you--I loved it. I mean I was totally freaked out and scared out of my mind, but it was incredibly beautiful and peaceful at the same time, And seeing about twenty other balloons on flights all around us was breathtaking.
As far as fear goes, I'm always struggling with some kind of anxiety. I think it's sort of hard-wired into me. It's something I learned and practiced for so many years that it's hard to not think anxiety-inducing thoughts. I always have something on my calendar that scares me. And I'm always making up catastrophic things in my head that most likely will never happen.
When my Mom was diagnosed with incurable, inoperable, terminal cancer, I felt fear like I had never felt before. I wanted to find a clinic or a hospital, a treatment or a doctor, anything that would save her. It was the worst news ever. And over the eight heart-wrenching months that followed, as I tried my best to come to terms with my impending loss, I saw my Mom say no to fear. Everyday. I saw her hold on to Jesus, everyday. I saw her trust God's wisdom and His plan for her life. She became a conduit of peace to those around her because she allowed God's love to drive out her fears. She believed that no matter what happened, God was with her. He loved her. And she was secure in His love.
I am learning to rely on God's love. Hard things are going to happen. I am going to fail and feel rejection. Unexpected losses will occur, and at times I will hurt. But God's love is knowable and reliable. It is steadfast and ever-lasting, and it is powerful enough to free us from all of our fears. Perfect love drives out fear. Because of His amazing love for us, we really do not have to be afraid. What is keeping you from living freely in God's love? #cancerfaithandunextpectedjoy #fear #courage #perfectlovedrivesoutfear #godslove #anxiety #freedom
It has been four years since I said my final goodbye to my irreplaceable mom.
I still think about her every single day. It's not that I haven't grieved. I have. It's not that I'm stuck and can't move forward. On the contrary, I have grown and made discoveries about God, myself and life after loss. It's just that when you lose someone who is a core person in your life, someone who helped shape and mold you, someone whose voice lives inside your head and your heart, you don't forget. You don't ever stop remembering and calling to mind the words and the tone and the warmth of who this person was.
It has been two years since I drove roundtrip for four consecutive days to Wheaton College--thirty miles from my home--for the Write to Publish conference. I was prepared. I had spent months writing and editing my book proposal. I had my one-sheet and my elevator pitch. (The elevator pitch is what you would say to a publisher if the two of you happened to get on the elevator at the same time and you only had 30 seconds to explain why he/she absolutely had to publish your book. I wrote my pitch and then avoided the elevators completely.)
Over the course of those four glorious days I immersed myself in the world of writing. I listened to faculty members teach on how to write a hook that gets you published, how to craft successful titles and market your work, how to write a non-fiction book, and how to jump-start your speaking career. I overdosed on words, written and spoken.
I made several ten-minute appointments with as many editors, agents, and publishers as was allowed, and then I mustered all the courage I had and pitched my book. I wanted to write about my mom and what she taught me about living and dying. how she showed me that I don't have to be afraid. I wanted to write about my grief journey and my faith and the messy way my heart was healing.
I left the conference with a handful of publishers and editors that wanted to see my proposal. So I spent the next several weeks sending it out, crafting cover letters and waiting for responses.
I hate waiting.
When responses came in, they were often similar in their wording. "Your writing is good. You tell your story in a compelling way. But this book would be hard to market." In other words,...memoirs are a hard sell and as a first time author, no one knows who you are. Or, "we already have a similar project in the works. We hope you find a home for your manuscript."
We hope you find a home for your manuscript. My manuscript was homeless. And I began to lose hope that my book would ever get picked up by a publisher. My dream of publishing my book was beginning to feel like a burden--a constant reminder of my failure--and I came to the point where I decided to give up my dream. I should have done it from the beginning--given my dream up to God. If He wanted my book to be published, He would open a door. If not, that was OK, too. I surrendered it and wrote about it in a blog post called, "When it's time to give up your dreams."
It was my friend Steph who finally asked me, "But you wrote it, right? You wrote the book? Because you can publish it yourself, you know, just for your family and friends."
Um, no, I haven't written it yet. I mean, I've written a few sample chapters, and I have an outline. And I've started several chapters, but no, I've been too busy writing my proposal and pitching my book. I haven't had the time (or the courage) to actually write it. What if no one wants to read it?
"You're right. I just need to write it."
So I hunkered down and wrote it. I woke up early and stayed up late. I wrote it in my head during the day when I was working and I wrote down notes on a pad of paper I kept on my nightstand just before I turned out the light. For about six weeks, I poured over my journal and I poured out my heart. And as I did, healing came. Sometimes I couldn't read the words on my computer screen through my tears. I felt as if I was turning my heart inside out, and the healing and comfort I experienced went just as deep.
I sent every chapter to Steph, and she read it all--more than once. I sent chapters to family and friends, and the book came together. Paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, it assembled itself into a story of love and loss, healing and hope.
I followed up on one last lead--a small publisher out of Colorado, and the editor said, "Send me the book when it's done." So I did.
And they gave me a contract. Just like that. And then, as I was working my way through the contract, I heard back from one of the editors I met at Write to Publish nine months earlier, asking me if I was still working on the book. I told him I had just finished it, and he said he wanted to see it.
They sent me a contract also. I ended up going with the second publisher, Kregel, out of Grand Rapids, and over the course of the last year my book has gone through a transformation. They had me double the original length, which seemed like an impossible task. But in the end they were right--there was more story to tell. I just had to dig deeper and find it. They changed the title from Holding On, Letting Go to Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy--which I wasn't happy about at first, but again, they were right. The new title made sense, would let people immediately know what the book is about, and has key words so it's easy to find. Each editor I worked with was amazing, and I learned to trust them with my story. They took what I gave them and made it so much better.
I am profoundly grateful. I'll be sharing quotes and posts over the next several weeks leading up to the book's release on September 26. I warmly invite you to come along on this journey with me. All of us have experienced loss, and I'm praying that together we can heal and find joy in the most unexpected places.