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Joyful sadness: More than a day, Christmas is a state of mind


Bojan Milinkov | Shutterstock

Larry Peterson - published on 12/10/17

If you are mourning someone this year, don't feel bad if your spirituality can't quite catch up to your humanity.
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I never viewed Christmas as just a day. Thanksgiving is a day. My birthday is a day.

You get what I mean.

But Christmas is much more than simply a day. It is a state of mind, an uplifting, spiritually charged season that changes many people into joy-filled, happy adult-children.

Unfortunately, not everyone feels the joy. Rather, they experience a muddled, confusing sort of emotional and psychic hybrid. Joy rendered incomplete by sadness; sadness tinged with a deep, spirit-settling joy.

It’s a joyful sadness.

Life moves forward; it cannot be stopped. And change happens. The people we love die, and leave a void that hangs before us in this season of carols and lessons, and we try to reabsorb the familiar readings in a way that speaks to our new state of aloneness.

Well-meaning people say, “Oh, she is in a better place, now.” I have no doubt she is. But I am not. I am filled with joyful sadness. There is unbearable sadness sharing the same space as my joy. Joyful sadness: an interior and individual space and time where two opposite worlds collide in the solitude of the human heart.

If you are mourning someone this year, don’t feel bad if your spirituality can’t quite catch up to your humanity.

As the emotional upheaval within continues, a convoluted mix of emotions leaves behind a trail of combined smiles and tears. For some, their death wound opens and festers during the Christmas season. Their grief is renewed. Others move forward with a heavy scar tissue protecting them from renewed grief. But none forget.

Every Sunday, I visit a number of elderly shut-ins. For the most part I am the only person they get to see and talk to each week, and they truly look forward to my arrival. I may only be with them for 10 to 15 minutes but they receive their church bulletin and tell me about this physical ailment or that negligent family member. They mostly are not bitter; they just need someone to hear them, and validate their personal suffering. Then they receive Holy Communion.

This is their weekly highlight, and my great privilege to witness.

Yet they all decorate for Christmas. One lady has a tree that is under a foot tall. On Thanksgiving Day, she puts lights on it and some tiny decorations, places it on a piece of cotton and puts the baby Jesus under it. Mary and Joseph are there too. It is a beautiful thing, her Christmas state of mind, in all of its sadness-speckled joy.

Many of these folks are in their early 90s. They are not in nursing homes, but an assisted living facility. On Christmas Day, most of them will be picked up by a family member, to spend the day together. But there is one who will not. His name is John, and he is a retired Army officer. He is 91. He is all alone except for his beloved wife, Mary, whose cremated remains are in an urn in his bedroom. She passed away in 2011 and theirs was a beautiful love story. Their wedding picture sits on his makeshift desk where a jumble of random papers are strewn about.

Next to Mary’s picture is a small Christmas tree.

John is almost totally deaf and it is hard to talk to him, but he “talks” to Mary every day and she “talks’ to him. Anticipating the inevitable, he as made arrangements with the local funeral director for when he passes: He and Mary will be picked up together and taken to the local VA Hospital, where there is a cemetery. The two of them will be laid to rest together.

He reaches over and gently grabs hold of the picture frame. While looking at it he tells me, “This would have been our 65th Christmas.” He shakes his head, and a powerful sigh comes from somewhere deep within him. A tear runs down his face. Another runs down my face. I miss my wife, too.

Maybe we might just say a little prayer for all those who will be experiencing this joyful sadness during this Christmas season. At some point, we will all experience it: the light of Christmas, taken deeply, to pierce our lonesome shadows.

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