by Jill Ragar Esfeld
My father died on Christmas Day, and he was my mother’s one and only true love.
He died in a hospice facility in Topeka, and it was my responsibility to drive to my mother’s house at the crack of dawn and give her the news.
In one of my most dim-witted moments, I picked up her favorite cappuccino on the way and handed it to her when she opened the door. As if that would make up for what I was about to say.
My dad was the heart and soul of our Christmas celebration. He was a gregarious prankster with a generous spirit. And this would be the last practical joke he played on our family, leaving us to mourn on the happiest day of the year.
His death was the biggest in a long line of heartaches in my life; the first of which came in college when my boyfriend dumped me for another girl.
At the time, I remember being fascinated by the fact that I really did have an ache in my chest. And in my youthful anguish, I imagined my heart full of love with no outlet to flow through; like a flooded reservoir straining against the gate of a dam.
Years later, I read a piece on grief by blogger Jamie Anderson, who put it most succinctly when she wrote about her own mother’s death.
“Grief,” she said, “is just love with no place to go.”
Grief is the heartache death leaves us, and Christmas is its bittersweet season.
It’s a surreal time for those suffering loss, because it’s hard enough to accept that life goes on without our loved ones — and during the holidays it goes on so loudly.
The overwhelming joy seems to mock our heartache and magnify our sense of loss.
I remember the first Christmas after my dad died, watching my mom brave through the functions of our family’s new normal without him. She seemed so lost.
It was like they had walked to the center of a complicated labyrinth together, and he had snuck out, leaving her without directions.
Years have passed since then, and we have all gotten better at this holiday business without our personal St. Nick. We’ve accepted the fact that we will never again be happy like we were with him. But we can be happy.
We’re whole again, but not the same.
Because the truth is, grief never dies. It lays in wait and sneaks up on you without warning.
One Christmas a few years back, a friend of mine who had recently lost her mom was out shopping. She couldn’t decide on the color of a tie for her dad. The saleslady kindly suggested, “Why don’t you call your mom and ask her?”
My friend burst into tears.
That’s what those of us who grieve during the holidays fear. That’s why we sometimes want to hide out and hope Christmas passes by without us. We don’t know when we’re going to encounter that object, or smell, or sound that makes our hearts fill up with love that has no place to go.
We don’t know when we might burst into tears.
And that’s why it’s important during the holidays to be sensitive to everyone you meet.
The cranky salespersons, the guest who doesn’t show up to your holiday party, or leaves too early — be kind and understand they may be dealing with heartache.
And for those who grieve, thank God for the compassion your experience has given you. You are well-equipped to practice the corporal work of mercy, to comfort those who mourn at this time of year.
Ask Jesus to love through you. To move your focus off your grief, and on to him, by serving others.