She showed up Christmas morning, alone. Her eyes were heavy, carrying the weight of a thousand burdens unspoken. She wasn’t dressed in her usual, festive way, and she hadn’t brought anything to contribute to the meal. She hadn’t even bothered to put on a dab of makeup.
As the crowd began to gather around the sizzling bacon and the gooey cinnamon rolls, she stayed in the other room until everyone was called to eat. She slowly walked into the kitchen and did her best to plaster a smile on her face, but no one was fooled.
Her dad looked up and said to the family, “Could we actually gather in the living room for a second?”
Once everyone had found a spot, he said, “Molly, before we begin our Christmas breakfast, I want to take a minute to let you know that we are so glad you are here. It breaks our heart that __ is not here with you this morning. I’m sure this Christmas must feel so awkward and sad. We are so sad with you, Honey.”
As I looked around with immediate tear-filled eyes, I saw all the heads of my family members nodding in agreement, some wiping their own eyes. I took a deep breath and slowly relaxed my shoulders. One sister, scooted over and tucked her arm around my back. “I’m really glad you’re here, Molly,” she said.
Then, Dad asked if he could pray for me and for my estranged marriage. We all closed our eyes and bowed our heads, and enormous drops poured down my face while he spoke, my heart emptying of the grief and filling up with the Hope of what Jesus came to Earth to do in the first place: save us, heal us.
There may be some grieving family members under a roof with you this season. Yes, they will be there in body, but perhaps not in spirit, or emotion, or thought. Their mind will race with all the emotions of who is not there and why, of the cancer that has returned, or of That Thing that awaits when they fly home. They won’t be able to think about anything else.
Until you take the time to name it.
There’s healing in saying The Thing out loud. We can take power away from their unraveling thoughts, which loom larger in their mind the more they think. You, my friend, have the ability to flip on the light of truth and make the darkness flee.
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32
Even as hard as it is sometimes, speaking the truth sets us free. Once my dad took time to acknowledge my grief, I was able to enjoy the cinnamon rolls and the silly party games — but I couldn’t have until he said the words out loud.
This is an action of sacrifice. It is stepping down into someone’s pain rather than remaining only where the Christmas lights twinkle, the mistletoe winks at you from the doorway, and everyone has lip-glossy smiles across their face.
It means not making our feelings the most important thing. Grief doesn’t feel good, so it is an act of love to willingly have a conversation that doesn’t feel good.
But I am so grateful Christ didn’t do only what felt good to Him, and if I want to be like Him, I want to step into the hurt of the people around my Christmas table.
Here’s one route you can choose to love the grieving at your table this year:
1. Take time to SAY you’re thinking of the grief, too. Say the specific name of the person who is missing. Say the word Cancer. Say what makes you sad for them, and how this isn’t what you wanted for them, too.
2. Give them a gift: LISTEN to them talk about it for a little bit. Ask questions like, What do you miss the most? What has been the hardest part of this Christmas season for you? What are you afraid of moving forward? Do not try to top their story with your own. Just listen. Nod your head. Cry. Put a hand on their leg or an arm around their shoulder. Bring them in close to you.
3. Offer simple ENCOURAGEMENT. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s okay to say that you don’t have the answers. But what DO you know? Perhaps you know that God is doing something in their life in the midst of this pain, perhaps you can attest to that in your own life, or perhaps you know that you will be texting them to check-in over the next few months, and you are so glad they are here with you. Perhaps you offer to pray for them. And when you hug them, squeeze them tight and for longer than one second.
4. Then, you can ENJOY the rest of the day! Once intentional time is given to the grief, you don’t have to wallow in it. This is the surprising part. We may think that if we open the lid on The Thing, it will never close. So we just don’t open it. But instead, once you address The Thing, it quits pounding on the lid and will simmer down for a while. You turned the light on, so darkness has to flee.
“And for those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow, a light has shined.” Matthew 4:16b
That line sounds like a final line in a Christmas movie to me — can’t you just hear the narrator’s deep, soothing voice saying it at the end of the movie?
Because Jesus came, those of us who live in the land of darkness, surrounded by shadows, and death, and divorce, and disease, we have Hope.
One year ago, I was in the shadowed valley of the death of my marriage. One year ago, my family members bravely and lovingly took time to take the lid off The Thing in my life for twenty minutes and shine some light into it. One year ago, even with The Thing not resolved in any fashion yet, I felt loved. I felt hope.
I felt the Light.
“You are the light of the world — like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light…” —Jesus to us (Mathew 5:14)
This year, I get to shine the Light for others.
Yes, we are in the land where death casts its shadow, but let us not forget – especially at Christmas – that the Light of the World has come!
And we are the carriers of The Light.