Joy and Grief: A Complicated Christmas

The holiday season is here! In some, this stirs up eager anticipation; in others, especially those who have experienced a new loss this year, this drags up the dread of facing a lonely season amidst widespread “togetherness.” The pregnant belly or the new baby is a memory (or a longing) instead of a reality. Or maybe traditions fall to the ground as the people who carried them are gone. Expected hugs and smiles and conversations are nowhere to be found. Family pictures are excruciating as everyone smiles through the pain of knowing the picture is forever incomplete.

I recently read an article about collective memories. When someone leaves, they take part of your memory with them. For example, you may count on your husband or child to remember the details of a cherished Christmas memory (what happened with the turkey that year?). When that person is gone, your memories are gone too. Inside jokes no longer find anyone else on the inside to share the laugh.

This creates an extra layer of grief – part of you is missing in addition to the missing loved one.

Getting older changes the nature of grief as well. We’ve experienced more, we know too much, and we can’t go back. When I was a young girl, I can recall trying to “get back to feeling happy” if I was upset. It was as though I had two separate compartments of emotion and after a short while in the sad compartment, I could hop back over to the happy side. But as I grew, the compartments started to slosh over into each other. The first time I remember this happening was with Christmas morning. As I got older, a nostalgia for Christmases past would slip in: a longing to relive memories of sleeping bag giggles with sisters as we waited for Christmas morning to arrive. The sweet sadness of nostalgia started to splash into the happiness of my holiday and I couldn’t make it leave.

But now. The two compartments have merged such that I can hardly have one emotion without the other. Accepting this has brought some peace – I no longer struggle, attempting to get back to “all happy.”

All mothers know this reality: I experience such wonder over the sweet young people that my babies are turning into, but the sorrow mingled with the pride is staggering: how can they be growing so fast? I can hardly look at my children without a deep longing for things to stay the same playing tug-of-war with my eagerness to see who they’re becoming and what the next stage will bring.

But this is not all bad, because somehow (as I read somewhere), in the mystery of God’s providence, great grief creates room for greater joy.

The pain we experience carves out a deeper reservoir for joy.

When I had my first child, the joy came in like the tide, filling the great chasm that had been made by infertility. My recent secondary infertility and miscarriages have deepened the well from which I draw thankfulness for the three children whose sleepy heads I get to kiss every morning.

Life with a child with special needs is full of these sad/happy moments as well: there is sadness in knowing how difficult reaching each milestone has been, but the concurrent, inexpressible joy and pride is downright overwhelming. I am thankful every single day for our Amelia, so incredibly grateful that she’s alive after such a rough start in life. I feel sadness wrapped in and around the thankfulness because how could I ever forget the incredible grief of that first year? My joy soars to such heights now because of the depths of my grief then.

I am sure this is true for others as well: the pain of a cancer diagnosis increases the gratitude for the now. The chill of grief over losing a spouse runs through the warm, happy moments of family milestones. The empty chair highlights the love and life of those still sitting at the table. A family member’s diagnosis brings out the love and affection of family members who hadn’t known how much they loved that person before; the pain draws out love, but then the realization of that love now adds to the pain.

This Christmas, I pray for those whose holidays are marked by fresh grief and loss, for those who long for wholeness and healing for themselves or loved ones. May your grief create a canyon of joy that will be filled to overflowing by your loving God: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13, ESV).