Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Losses

I went to the same funeral home two nights in a row to pay respects to two different families this weekend. To say the very least, it has been an extremely difficult week for many, many people in our school community. We lost two very different people on the same day. One was a beloved and dedicated teacher who at last succumbed to ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. The loss was not unexpected, but devastating, nonetheless. In his teaching career he impacted thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues.The other was a substitute teacher and very involved parent who died suddenly and unexpectedly. She had spent countless hours volunteering and giving of herself for the benefit of the young people in our schools. Many of the same adults and young people stood in long lines two nights in a row to express their condolences to the loved ones of these individuals whose loss will be felt by many in our community.
I have been thinking about these families and how the Christmas season will forever be associated with the loss of their loved one. I have been thinking about the many families whose experience has been similar. Something within us all cries out, "This is wrong! This isn't supposed to happen at Christmas!" We don't say it, but we do feel it, even if we aren't conscious of it. In the back of our minds we have this idyllic image of what the Christmas season is supposed to be like. The literature, movies and music associated with the season serve to cement the unconscious expectation that Christmas is supposed to be perfect. Perfect food, perfect gifts, perfect families. No tears, no disappointments, no losses. There is no room in this image of perfection for the realities we often face. Illnesses, job loss, the death of a loved one. None of these things fit how it's "supposed to be".
So, what do we do? How do we handle reality in the face of such unrealistic, but deeply rooted idealistic expectations? First, I think we have to give ourselves permission to mourn. When we expect things to be perfect we will often try to avoid expressing our negative emotions. Mourning and the Christmas season seem incompatible, but the reality is there are many who are mourning. It is appropriate to mourn when we have lost someone, or something, important and it's just as appropriate at Christmas as any other time.
Second, we need to give ourselves permission to enjoy the holiday. I know that seems contradictory. Often when we've experienced a loss it seems wrong for life to go on. We might feel disloyal to the one we've lost if we feel any joy. Enjoying what we can of the holiday is a testament to the reality that life does go on, and even though we have lost someone or something extremely valuable, the life we are living is just as valuable. We honor their memory by valuing this life that we have and living with hope. Because the truth is that Christmas is about hope.
Hope is really the greatest message of Christmas. Christmas is about God loving the world so much that He gave His son as a gift to all of us. That gift gives us reason to hope. Christmas reminds us that we are not alone. We are reminded that we have each other to be grateful for. Yes. But we are also reminded that God is there. Every Christmas carol is a reminder of this truth. Without God there really is no reason for Christmas. Without God there really is no reason for hope.
There is another reality that we don't like to acknowledge. We have all experienced loss and we often feel that loss more keenly during the Christmas season, even if that loss occurred long ago. It might be tempting to diminish our own sense of loss by comparing it to those whose loss is recent. I think we still need to give ourselves permission to mourn and permission to experience the joy of the holiday. Our loss is still real. Our life still does go on. Our reason for hope remains the same.
It's less than a week till Christmas now. I am feeling these losses deeper than I would have expected. So, I will mourn when I need to, but I will also rejoice when I need to. My prayer for you in this season is that you will fully experience the hope of Christmas regardless of the realities you may be facing. May you have a blessed Christmas, dear one. You have reason to mourn, reason to rejoice and, most of all, reason to hope.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Holiday Unstressed

Maybe it's that I am maturing or that my kids are getting older, but I just haven't felt that stressed by the holidays the past few years. There are still tasks to be completed, but I have pared down to what is most important to me and those I love. But I don't think it's primarily the simplification of my to-do list that has "unstressed" me.

Stress comes from within as well as from without. We often can't control the situations that cause us stress. When a loved one is injured or seriously ill, there is little we can do to control the situation. All we can do at a time like that is find ways to manage the stress. In the holiday season, however, there are many factors we can take control of, like the number of cards we choose to send or the number of gifts we choose to buy and how much money we choose to spend. We can limit the number of activities celebrating the season that we get involved in as well. Have I done any of those things? Yes, I have. In fact, I think I have done all of those things, but I still don't believe that is the reason that I have become "unstressed".

So, what is it, then?  I remember a few years ago feeling overwhelmed by the month of December. I and my family were involved in a number of activities that couldn't be pared down. Even with my list made and a number of items purchased I still wondered how I would be able to get it all done. As I reviewed everything I had to do, I just couldn't see how I could go to work and take care of my family and do everything that I normally had to do as well as the various holiday activities and preparations. As I came to the conclusion that everything on my to-do list was necessary and couldn't be changed, I realized that only one thing could be changed:  Me. What had to change was my attitude. I had to accept my to-do's as they were and believe that somehow the strength would be there to get it done. So, I took a deep breath and chose not to let myself continue in a state of being overwhelmed, and proceeded through the month of December.When I came to the end of that Christmas and holiday season I was relieved. Everything had been accomplished without a constant feeling of stress, yet I also knew that I never wanted the season to be that full of busyness again. The following year a few activities were missing from my to-do list and you know what? I didn't miss them.

Our family has always tried to do things to "keep Christ in Christmas", to remind us of  the real reason we celebrate this joyful, hectic season. I guess I have realized that those activities alone can't keep my heart centered. There are choices I have to make about how I approach the necessary preparations. They have become less important in themselves. I guess what has really happened is that I have begun to see the whole season as a celebration, rather than hectic preparations leading up to one special day. Making my list of gifts to purchase has become part of the celebration, as has decorating the house (which that one year was an overwhelming duty) or purchasing and wrapping the gifts.  Yes, I am doing less and enjoying it more, but I am also enjoying more because accepting an unchangeable to-do list forced me to accept the extra activity as part of the season.  In doing that, I have learned to enjoy the whole season rather than just the relief of checking off the items on my to-do list.

So, let me encourage you: Enjoy all of it as much as possible. Eliminate what you can. If you can't eliminate it, then choose to enjoy it as a part of the celebration. Enjoyment is definitely a stress-reliever!