Last night, I removed my sister’s name from the Christmas address list. I was clinging to the letters of her name typed into a cell in a spreadsheet. I pressed the delete key slowly and then moved her children to new lines. Tears streamed down my cheeks. She died eight months ago and the kids moved shortly after. But changing a spreadsheet makes it feel like it’s happening all over again.
Advent and Christmas have so many moments for grief to swell and pool. So many others have told me about the difficulties of the first year, the birthdays and family gatherings, the holidays and especially the pain of Christmas grief. Like so many other things in life, the warnings don’t really prepare you for the reality.
When we pulled out the Christmas decorations, the kids were all wired up to hang things on the tree. Loud voices shared memories connected to items coming out of boxes. The older ones telling the three-year-old how the Advent wreath and calendar and Nativity scene work. And they crawled under the tree, with less space for them to fit so they could recreate a picture from last year that they love on the calendar. And all I can see are my sister’s kids from previous year’s pictures and the woman who isn’t behind the camera for them this year. I want to cling to Christmas with Abbie here.
I gave the Nativity scene to my oldest. She loves to do all my favourite jobs, and I give them to her with both joy and envy. She pulled out all the pieces and placed them just so, explaining them to her little sister. And I pulled out the pregnant woman that matches but does not go with the set. We put her in the scene until Christmas when the Mary holding Jesus appears. I ran my hands over the barely visible cracks in the swollen belly. The morning we miscarried Claire last February, the little statue got knocked off the counter and had to be glued back together. I cling to the memory of her tiny body in my hands, and the swell of my own belly holding a wiggling son who would not be if she had not died.
We were out at a secular holiday party, decorated with lights and bows, trees and candy, filled with the smell of turkey. I didn’t know anyone. I was sipping on ginger ale feeling the loneliness when someone went up to give a reflection in the place of grace before a meal. The words totally unrelated, my heart cracked in two. I just didn’t want to be there. I want to cling to parties where Abbie is sitting at the table with me, saying the things we are all thinking, and laughing so loud that everyone else joins in.
Our family, which usually plans holidays months in advance, struggles to get organized. Long ago we did away with sibling gifts. We replaced the ritual with a hilarious junk-from-your-house gift exchange, passing around a pail of old doorknobs that survived three moves and a VHS recording of the Salt Lake City Olympics that someone still had in the basement. This year, our junk is miscarriage and murder; it’s too heavy, too real to haul out of storage rooms and basement closets. I need to cling to the stuff that isn’t loss.
“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7). The Christmas story is so familiar for so many of us. It is not a story about comfort and cocoa in front of a fireplace. It is a story about a family who had no place to give birth, who fled into Egypt as refugees to escape the murder of their Son.
As a child, a close friend of mine once refused to get dressed for Christmas Mass. “I’m not going!” he declared to his exasperated mom. “I’m not going to go celebrate the birth of a baby so that we can kill him at Easter!” It is so tempting to believe that we can prevent suffering by shutting ourselves off to love. And that’s not how it works.
The baby is coming. His life, like ours, holds both tremendous joy and deep suffering. It’s what we cling to that makes this life worth living. The kids are so excited. Every night they pray our Advent prayer. Our littlest tries to wrap her head around how time and space will eventually unfold to bring her Christmas to now instead of still more sleeps.
I am clinging to the promise of joy, delivered in the form of a hunted baby whose birth and death and rising can change the world: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will” (Luke 2:14). There is glory here, and peace possible. I am clinging to the box of crackers I bought that Abbie would have brought. Clinging to my babies and trying my best to let their anticipation and excitement infect me. Clinging to the music we played as kids.
I choose to cling to the promise of joy as I walk the road of grief. May we find glimpses of peace in our hearts and homes this year, even as we hold our loved ones in heaven. Amen.