Two family members will be missing from our family Christmas gatherings this year.
My mother died in April after a ten-year journey with dementia. She hadn’t been well enough to participate in our family Christmas celebrations for the past few years. Instead, we had established different traditions with her at the Healthcare Facility in which she lived.
My sister’s husband died in August as a result of Lymphoma, just one year after being diagnosed with what was believed to be a treatable cancer. We didn’t know last Christmas would be his final Christmas.
Many extended family members and friends are also facing their first Christmas after the loss of a loved one. The anticipation of seeing that empty chair can seem overwhelming. Recalling once-happy Christmas memories leaves you in tears.
I love Christmas music, despite the physical reaction I have to “O’ Holy Night” and “Silent Night.” Both cause my eyes to instantly fill with tears. The first was one of my Dad’s favorite songs. It brings to mind the Christmas Eve Masses we attended. The second reminds me of my paternal Grandmother and her annual family party held on December 23rd.
At one point during the evening she would remind us to sing carols to invite Santa Claus’s arrival. Grandma would begin singing “Silent Night.” Looking back, maybe this was her clever crowd control: Gather her 24 grandchildren and quiet them with the lullaby effect of a hymn! When I hear the song, I hear her voice.
A few weeks ago I was in the car with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” playing on the radio. The song suddenly had a different meaning as I listened to the lyrics.
Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy? Wow! We were definitely in need of both this Holiday season. Where would we find them?
Then I unpacked some Christmas decorations. I was struck by the notes indicating the contents of some the boxes. It has been several years since my Mother and her Mother have written anything to me, but their handwriting is instantly recognizable.
Seeing the notes didn’t make me sad. It wasn’t even bittersweet. They made me smile. The notes are a connection to Christmases past, and a connection to my Mom and Grandma. I felt they were with me, giving me a decorating assist with their organized labeling. Funny, I didn’t know one day the real treasures in a box of Radko ornaments would be labels and crumpled sticky notes.
I think comfort can be found in our family traditions. As difficult it might be to carry on traditions without our loved ones, the familiar might be just what we need. They can at least get us in the groove, and provide a bit of a roadmap.
Traditions can be just as comforting when a new generation assumes them. My niece misses playing elf on her annual shopping day with her Dad, during which they would purchase a gift for her Mom. I imagine my niece’s little elf-in-training will be shopping with her Daddy, very soon. How heartwarming is that?
I’m a fan of Christmas trees with eclectic decorations. Family heirloom ornaments that have hung on the tree for decades are some of my favorites. Whether they are legitimate antiques, a grade school craft, full of mid century kitsch or the coveted pickle, they tell the comforting history of family Holidays.
Holiday menu fare includes family recipes that have become tradition. Grandma’s Jewish Coffee Cake, Mom’s Sugar Cookies, and Dad’s favorite cookies. We try to perfect those heirloom recipes in hope they will turn out exactly as they did when Mom or Grandma was cooking. After all, I think tradition is most comforting when it involves comfort food!
This Christmas, we’ll celebrate the birth of our Savior, be visited by Santa, and exchange gifts, but how can we possibly get in the mood for actual merriment when we are sad, missing our loved one and face an empty chair?
The empty chair has become a symbol for the absence of loved ones at family gatherings. There is a Facebook page dedicated to it. It is both literal and figurative, because the reality is, our missing loved ones took up more than a chair. This is especially true of my brother-in-law. His presence filled an entire room.
He lived his life in the spirit of the two main men of Christmas. He never had to ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” He just always did the right thing. He was a counselor in personal matters and a mentor in the business world. Like Santa, he loved Christmas and gift giving. His quiet, usually anonymous generosity continued year round, and was life-changing for individuals and organizations.
With such a huge presence missing, how will we find joy?
My brother-in-law’s family gathered at my sister’s home to celebrate Christmas last weekend. His six siblings and their children and grandchildren numbering 60+ strong embraced the spirit of their brother/uncle. They “adopted” an in-need family and purchased every item on the family’s wish list.
What an absolute abundance of joy, and an abundance of love. My sister shared with them, her family of 40+ years, that the gift of their presence was what she and her children most appreciated. She assured them that they needn’t to be afraid to talk about her husband or say his name. In fact, hearing stories helps her and her children feel close to him, and in a way – keeps him alive.
So, our biggest source of joy, will come from simply being together. The delight of our smallest family members will keep us entertained. We’ll savor our culinary accomplishments. We’ll talk about our missing loved ones. We’ll say their names. There may be a few tears, but there will definitely be alot of laughs.
If you are grieving and facing the first Christmas since the loss of a loved one, I hope you are able to find true comfort and joy.
Go ahead. Hang the ornaments. Sing the carols. Cry the tears. Fill the chair. Share the stories. Laugh.
And eat the cookies.