The holiday season in sorrow and joy

Emotions of loss, grief, personal and economic hardship can all dim the holiday's brightness


WASHINGTON, December 26, 2014 – On Christmas Eve 15 years ago, we buried my grandmother.

The extended family gathered in Salt Lake City to attend her funeral, and we stayed for a few days with relatives in the area. There were no parties for us that year, and we didn’t give much thought to gifts. But my parents, brother, sisters and I did have our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of enchiladas; we listened to music, and we pored through photo albums and laughed at shared stories about Grandma.

What could have been a dismal Christmas was instead sad, but filled with warmth and love. It was a good Christmas, just not a merry one.

Our friend Nadya died on Christmas day, after an angry battle with cancer. We’ve had other friends die on or soon after holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, a child’s wedding. They held on to life long enough to see some day that was important to them, then let go.

The holiday season is a stressful time for many of us. We expect it to be perfect, that family will all be there and share good times, that there will be parties and gifts and merriment all around.

Reality rarely meets the expectations. Family members die during the year and are sorely missed. Some people divorce during the year, and their newly single state is emphasized during the holidays. Children go their own way, bitterness and long resentments split families apart, we’re in financial crisis, and all around us is the incessant message of peace, good cheer, and “what did you get me for Christmas?”

There’s no single way to salvage some personal and family peace during the holidays – the causes and effects of tragedy and turmoil are too many to be fixed with one easy solution – but there are two things that can help.

When we have family, we can pull together during the holiday to offer each other love and support. The first step to doing that is to forgive each other.

Forgive for what? For everything. Forgive your sister for being more popular, your brother for getting away with everything. Forgive you parents for being forgetful or harsh, forgive your spouse for being weak and imperfect.

Forgive each other for the disappointments of the year and those accumulated over a lifetime.

We often gather up these disappointments and resentments unaware that we’re doing it. Your husband forgets to say “thank you” for something you did for him, and you think you shrugged it off, but in the forgetful way of someone picking up a piece of trash from the counter and putting it in his pocket before he gets to the trashcan, you carry it around with you.

Stop and think how much you love each other, then forgive. Forgive without preconditions, forgive without expecting those you forgive to change. If you want people in your life, forgive them.

The second step is to simplify. Strip down the season to what’s most important to you. It will almost certainly not be presents under a tree. When my grandmother died, it wasn’t the parties or the presents that made the day Christmas, it was the family meal, the same meal we’d been sharing on Christmas Eve for over 40 years. It was a way to remember who we are. Sharing that meal and singing Christmas songs while Dad prepared it and afterward was all we needed to make it Christmas.

Gifts and decorations can be distractions that make us forget the important themes of the holiday season: the birth of the Savior; the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem; hope for a new year; the rededication of our lives to what is important; our heritage, family and culture.

Strip down the holiday to what is most meaningful to you, then don’t worry about the rest. It isn’t important, so don’t make it important by mourning its absence.

A final point is to remember who you are and who you are not. You aren’t your job. You aren’t your possessions. You aren’t your friends or your family or your popularity.

Those things can all be stripped from us in an instant. When we mourn their loss, we mourn what was never ours in the first place.

They can enrich our lives, but once our lives are enriched, they can’t be impoverished by loss. How can we lose what we never had?

We will never eliminate sorrow from our lives, and it’s foolish to expect to hold it at bay during the holiday season. We are only human, therefor blind to what makes us truly happy. Some tragedies are too great and too immediate to let us do much more than endure, but endure we can, until the next holiday gives us the distance to find peace and remember who we are.

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