Firstly, I need to confess that I do love Christmas. I always have. I experience a sense of awe at this time of year and I love the celebrations that surround commemorating that first Christmas in Bethlehem. Even though I recognise that Christmas happiness has been commercialised on an atomic scale, I still feel that this time of year holds special treasures that we can delightfully uncover.
However, I also realise that juxtaposed with the joy of Christmas, many people find that it is a time when their grief is amplified. I remember my first Christmas after my late-wife Laura died. I travelled with my kids from South Africa to the UK to be with family. I was exhausted and in survival mode. It was a relief to be with family. But the loss of Laura weighed heavily as we sought to navigate how to celebrate Christmas while acknowledging the massive void that existed. As with so many aspects of grief, there is no right way or wrong way to do this. Yet, seasons like this are a reality to be faced as they are troubled waters that have to be navigated.
I think we simply need to acknowledge that. For every person celebrating with abandon, there is someone else facing their worst nightmare. Both last December and last week, I attended funerals and felt deep compassion for families facing an immediate Christmas season in the aftermath of unimaginable loss.
In my book Grief and Grace, I speak about grief as a sixth sense, one that dominates all other senses while we are experiencing deep loss. This sixth sense can be particularly prominent during festive occasions like Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries. It can make singing of Christmas carols difficult where refrains like Joy to the World and other such proclamations don’t sit with one’s current reality. Family gatherings are tricky because a person who was always present is now missing. The sixth sense can cast a shadow and it’s important to find ways to acknowledge and even express it.
This year, there is perhaps a global sixth sense that things are simply not as they should be. Our news feed is filled with distressing scenes from the very part of the world where the angels proclaimed that a Saviour was born who would bring peace on earth. Maybe this Christmas, we’re all struggling to reconcile the songs we’re singing in church about the prince of peace who was born in a manger, with the realities of war, turmoil and grief that emanate from Israel and Palestine, and from many other parts of the world.
Rather than simply ignore the sixth sense we’re experiencing, whether through personal grief or due to global events, my encouragement is that you take some time to reflect and acknowledge the tension, pain or confusion you are feeling. Perhaps reflect on the Christmas story recognising the tension that exists because the prince of peace in the manger was destined to die a cruel death on a Roman cross. Or consider Mary, who in that moment experienced wonder and joy but was also to discover that her own heart would be pierced (see Luke 2:33-35).
Or maybe find some poems or songs that are not just all happy and celebratory, but can enable you to sit and meditate on the deeper condition of your soul as you navigate grief. One such song that I have found incredibly helpful is by U2, Peace on Earth. It is a cry to Jesus in the midst of turmoil. The song concludes with the following words:
Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
To tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth
Jesus in the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth?
This peace on Earth, peace on Earth, peace on Earth, peace on Earth.
Source: LyricFind, Songwriters: Adam Clayton / Dave Evans / Larry Mullen / Paul David Hewson
Peace on Earth lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group
The song ends with an unanswered question. This is the reality of grief. We never have all our questions answered. However, recognising the pain of unanswered questions is an important part of our healing process. In whatever ways you are currently experiencing the sixth sense of grief, my prayer for you this Christmas is that you will be able to find a measure of healing and hope as you traverse the difficult terrain that grief takes us through.