In C. S. Lewis’s tale The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the land of Narnia is under a curse in which it was decreed it would “always be winter, but never Christmas.” As we approached the month of December in that first year after our 30-year old daughter died suddenly, I wished it could be just winter and not Christmas all.

The last thing I wanted was to gaze at an empty space at the dinner table, at the gift-opening, at the Christmas stockings hung on the fireplace mantle.

When we have come through the worst, coming up on that first Christmas and later Christmases holds its own kind of anguish. But there is an opportunity there, too, to be driven to the core of the true meaning of Christmas.

We knew Christmas would be difficult, of course. Thanksgiving started out okay. I spoke at our church’s worship service about remembering, and we gathered with friends on Thanksgiving Day as we always do for the meal. But later that day, the void of Eva’s absence hit me hard. Our house felt so empty without her. I wept and wept. That’s when I realized that the cyclical rituals of our lives, like holidays, which we consider “family time,” is when we, the bereaved, face the starkness of our losses.

Christmas is difficult, of course, because that is when we typically gather in our family configurations. In my mother’s house, where we had Christmas for so many years, we were nurtured by the care with which she decorated. From when I was a child she set out the same six-inch painted figurines in a wooden manger: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, an angel, a shepherd, and a few animals. I can close my eyes now and see each figure in detail. The tree was always adorned in the same way. The whole extended family sat around the roast beef, mashed potatoes, and huge pot of mushroom gravy on the dinner table. We sat in the same spots every year until my grandfather died and then my grandmother. We all missed them so much when they passed away. Wonderful people. The chairs were re-arranged, one generation poignantly giving way to the next. But now the empty chair of our 30-year-old daughter was a void that was so much worse than empty.

Weeks ahead of time, my wife, Ingrid, and I discussed how we were going to navigate Christmas. Our sentiments were somewhat different from each other. With her Scandinavian flair, Ingrid always loved decorating the house, top to bottom, with greenery and lights and figurines. When Eva was a small girl, Ingrid arranged for the family the ritual of St. Lucia’s Day in which the daughter of the house dressed in white, with a wreath of electric candles on her head, delivering freshly cooked sweets to each family member. Eva loved that. It was etched in our memories.

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To do Christmas more or less the normal way would have been Ingrid’s preference. My instinct was to pretend that Christmas wasn’t happening at all. In the end we compromised, keeping things simple. Christmas dinner was nothing fancy. We gave gifts to each other over a period of days rather than the normal sit-down gift exchange around the tree. I put a few floodlights on the front of the house, but nothing more.

We kept things low key. I wanted to get to January as quickly as possible that first year. I wanted each day to be a generic day—whether Tuesday or Friday or Sunday—to have a few tasks to accomplish. I knew I could survive any old day of the week.

So we took it one day at a time until we reached the new year.

Christmas is always a great opportunity to take in the wonder of God’s great love and to contemplate the miracle of God’s saving mission in Jesus. That first year I knew December would be unbearable if I dwelt every day on all the Christmas pageants our kids were in or the surprise presents under the tree or the travel to Grandma’s house, and all the other sentimental things. Glimpses were okay. Just couldn’t live there. Too soon. Too raw. A year later, and then two years later, Christmas would be less difficult.

We can get through grief, but not by trying to turn it into happiness. Grief has to be grief, and moments of happiness break in on their own.

We can’t take holiday traditions and fill in the gap of the person who is gone. That would be a mind game that would quickly collapse into something even harder. Going through grief does not mean trying to make yourself happy. I had to learn that being happy was not the most important goal of my life. That I could have a measure of contentment nonetheless. Peace and hope are far better. And ongoing love. The love does not need to stop. It cannot stop. There is no “Love you, too” coming from that empty room. That’s the terrible part. But I choose to believe there is a reciprocated love that is silent to my ears but real nonetheless.

We all wonder how that first Christmas will be for the bereaved families we know. From where I sit now, this is what I’d say: Continue to have quality interactions with them. Don’t analyze them, and don’t think you have to maneuver them out of their sadness. Understand. Don’t generalize when you talk about how wonderful Christmas is in the twinkly, candy-cane sticky, shiny-gift-wrap kind of “happiness.” Church leaders: Please lead us into an obsession with the miracle of the Incarnation. Go deep, please. Take Christmas seriously. Christmas is wonderful because we can focus on the world-shattering event of God become flesh, which gives us hope for the coming day when there will be “no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain.” In that I take great comfort. And joy. Happiness deferred.

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I always knew that people who recently lost someone very close to them found Christmas difficult to deal with. What I have learned from others who face a sorrowful Christmas is that we have to do what we have to do to get through it. One family I know went to a hotel over Christmas for several years. A mother told me that it was six years before they put up a Christmas tree. For us the challenge was that Ingrid had always taken great joy in decorating the house top to bottom with traditional Swedish Christmas decorations. She did it for the kids. But we knew that all those sights and smells would only draw attention to the fact that Eva wasn’t with us. So on that first December, Ingrid set out just a few decorations. We did what our instincts told us to do and were glad when we got to January.

The reduction of Christmas did have one positive benefit. It cleared away some of the clutter—flashy and busy and burdensome—so that we could put the focus appropriately on the coming of the Messiah and the promise of salvation. I found myself driven deep into the mystery of the Incarnation.

It has all made me wonder about the purpose of all our “special days.” Birthdays and Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving—we all have our rituals on those days. Some people make more of special days than other people. Some go through their whole year by running from one marker to the next, while others barely notice those days. A lot of people feel obligated to do certain things or go to certain places or buy gifts or have parties or put lights on the house—but sometimes it is all obligation, little joy.

Our word holiday comes, of course, from “holy day” in Old English. Something that is holy is “set apart” for some special purpose. We may get time off work, opening us to gain something special from the special day.

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Things change when we are in a season of survival. We might be more aware of the actual purpose of holy days. We are aware that there is grace in them that goes beyond nostalgia. It’s a good thing to think more about the actual event of the birth of Jesus than just the manger scene set out on top of a coffee table. The light of Christmas, which is the light of Christ, makes the most sense when we experience the darkest of darkest nights.

[ This article is also available in Indonesian. ]

A Chronicle of Grief: Finding Life After Traumatic Loss
A Chronicle of Grief: Finding Life After Traumatic Loss
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