(adapted from a piece I wrote for our church newsletter)
Earlier this month, my family and I went to a local Christmas tree farm to get our pictures taken. I felt a swirl of emotions. In my experience, trauma (in my case, cancer and its ongoing treatment) and grief (in my case, over the loss of my dad) make it difficult to approach the holidays with the straightforward, pure celebration we tend to associate with the season. Going to get family photos, I felt fragile. I don’t look the way I looked in previous Christmas pictures. I don’t feel the way I used to feel, either.
As we drove up, our photographer was just finishing with another family. They looked so handsome and happy in their coordinated outfits, the two younger children laughing and running ahead of the parents and older brother. Watching them, I felt wistful. My mind and heart pitched backwards into my own family’s younger years, before we had sustained so much trauma and loss. I envied the seeming innocence of that young family.
On our way towards the photographer, the four of us walked by the five of them, and the mother and I briefly made eye contact. She was beautiful, and I was surprised to see something soft and almost vulnerable in her eyes. A few minutes later, as my family and I walked through the trees, our photographer talked about the sweet family she had just been working with. She told me that several years ago, they had lost a son, and that they had brought a photo of him to be in the pictures with them. She mentioned the little boy’s first name, and I suddenly realized who the family was. I’ve never met them, but they have good friends in our church. Our congregation prayed for their little boy for months after he was diagnosed with cancer; he died almost six years ago, at the age of two-and-a-half.
Watching them from a distance, not realizing who they were or what they’d been through, all I could see was their beauty, their happiness, their seeming innocence, the liveliness of their children. I didn’t see that they were moving towards the holidays with a child-sized hole in their hearts and in their family. I didn’t see that they had sustained a shattering, life-altering loss. I didn’t see how that loss had changed them, and how it hurts them still.
Most of the time, we have no idea what other people are carrying or how hard they may be struggling just to cope. Even when we have some idea of what another person is going through, we don’t often truly understand the extent of another person’s sadness or stress or anxiety or exhaustion. We only know each other from the outside in, and the outside is only ever a small part of reality. If we truly saw and understood each other’s pain, would we treat others with more gentleness and compassion? Knowing that we don’t fully see and understand each other’s pain, can we just decide to treat others with gentleness and compassion?
Could we extend that same gentleness and compassion towards ourselves? Some of you are grieving fresh and staggering losses. Some of you have grief that may not be fresh but may be provoked in fresh ways by the holidays. Some of you are carrying nearly unbearable stress or anxiety. Some of you have burdens the rest of us know nothing about. The relentless pressure at this time of year, to be upbeat and optimistic, can amplify our burdens and the feeling of isolation. But the gifts of this season – hope, wonder, peace, love – do not depend on our cheerfulness or our ability to manufacture the “Christmas spirit.” The gifts of Christmas come to us wrapped in baby flesh – is there anything more vulnerable, more helpless? The gifts of Christmas are especially for those who know their neediness, for those who feel fragile, for those who are ready to receive.
‘Tis the season to be jolly? Well, sure, if that’s how you feel. But more importantly, ‘tis the season to be kind and tender towards ourselves and others, to see each other and ourselves with soft eyes and gentle hearts, to recognize that our weakness and pain connects us rather than separates us, and to make ourselves ready to receive the gifts of God, who, in the form of powerlessness, will be born among us.