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It was Christmas Eve. All the usual suspects were gathered in their best holiday attire to celebrate the season. The table glowed in the candlelight, and lit holly softened and warmed the room. Yes, the stage was perfectly set for a night of holiday cheer and revelry. But though the scene was familiar, the air felt heavy and strange. We couldn’t help but subconsciously look toward the door for the one guest who was missing, the one who would never arrive. And as much as we tried to enter into holiday spirit, the conversation always returned to her, all repeating the same mantra: Who would have thought last year at this time that we would be having Christmas without her?
My mom had passed away suddenly mere weeks before the holidays, leaving my family stunned and helpless. Because my father’s death preceded hers by a few short years, we were left parentless. And Christmas made us feel every bit like the orphans we had become. In fact everything about Christmas that year, bells merrily ringing, fa-la-las and each joy to the world contradicted the deep sadness and aching in my heart. Yes, the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations continued even as I watched, incredulous, that the loss of my mother didn’t make the world stop.
After a death, every one of life’s landmarks, each anniversary and holiday, is met with anxious anticipation. Would that day be full of darkness? Will I survive it? Each event your loved ones miss reflect the cruel passage of time, creating more distance between you and their voice, their presence, their touch. And Christmas is especially challenging. Not only are you faced with an empty space at the table, you are inundated with a season of festive spirit and holiday cheer. When everyone is looking forward to the comfort, peace and joy in coming home for the holidays, your “home” is radically different, forever altered.
There are things I would like to go back and tell my then-grieving self about heading into my first Christmas without my mom. I would tell her that it’s okay if she doesn’t feel in the Christmas spirit. I would release her from any obligation she felt to attend holiday parties and shindigs yet would gently remind her that the warmth of Christmas and the joy of the arrival of the Savior is still available to her.
I would encourage silence and the contemplation of the Christmas story. To remember that Mary was weary from her journey, just as her head and heart are weary from grief and longing. That Joseph was anxious to find a place for his wife to give birth and was burdened with worries of the unknown, just as she finds it hard to dismiss all the what-ifs of contemplating a new normal, a life without the presence of the person she loved so dearly.
And most importantly, I would tell her to find peace and consolation in the arrival of the long-anticipated Christ Child. Because now this mystery, more than ever, has profound and personal meaning. In fact, it means everything. For with the birth of this Child in a stable comes the promise of being united once again with the one she lost.
For those facing a first Christmas after the death of a loved one, know that my heart aches with you. Know that I too will be feeling the profound absence of my parents, as you will feel the desperate void of the parent, son, daughter, sibling or spouse that you lost this year. And I will pray that you will feel consolation in the arrival of our Savior. May you hear this year, as never before, the angels bringing you tidings of comfort and joy!
Maria Garabis Davisholds a Juris Doctor degree and a BA in theology. A former youth minister and now practicing attorney, she resides in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and four children.