Advent and Christmas are my favorite seasons of the year. I love getting ready for Christ’s birth and I cherish the memories my family makes as we celebrate the seasons. We have many traditions that we have incorporated into our lives that have brought meaning and joy to our celebrations. It’s a time filled with joy and wonder- especially when you have small children.
For many years it was easy to get into the holiday spirit. Where I may have loved Christmas as a child, there is even more to love when you have children of your own. The excitement that lights up their eyes and the eager anticipation in counting down the days until Christmas is so much fun. Of course shopping, choosing the perfect gifts for everyone, going to Christmas Mass, having family dinner, and opening presents helped to make the season happy and holy.
Unfortunately sometimes life steps in to steal our joy. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our hearts don’t want to celebrate… or worse, can’t celebrate because they hurt too much.
My heart often aches with an intensity that I can’t describe to anyone. This is especially true at Christmas time. Our son William was born and died on December 21, 2010. His birth and death were so intense and traumatic that they forever changed the way I feel at this time of the year. There is a loneliness and pain that simply can’t be explained. The memories of that horrible day flood back to me and I sometimes I just want to hide and cry for all that we endured… that we do endure.
It was a mere four days before Christmas when we rushed to the emergency room only to be told that there was no room for us. It was four agonizing days before Christmas that William would be born and would die in the waiting room. It was four unbearable days before Christmas that I held my son and willed life into him. It was four earth-shattering days before Christmas that my world would be forever changed.
When we came home from the hospital the next day I knew that life would have to move on. I wasn’t afforded the luxury of grieving. No, Christmas would be coming and I was helpless to stop it. There were nine more children at home to think about. Nine children that I knew still needed the magic and the wonder of Christmas, especially in the face of our terrible loss. There was no one to help me and no family or friends locally to come to the rescue and so the day after I came home, and with only 2 days to spare until Christmas arrived, I was wrapping presents, shopping for food, and preparing for our children to have a memorable Christmas day.
It was tortuous to watch my children open presents that Christmas morning. I wanted to revel in their joy but sadness gripped my heart and my soul. I put on my best smile and tried to make sure they didn’t see how much pain I was in, but I only wanted to go to bed and cry. I eventually excused myself to my room when they were done opening gifts. But there was no quiet or relief in my room either.
Before long I needed to cook our Christmas dinner. The work was a welcome distraction. When it came time to eat, I sat at my end of the table and tears filled my eyes. They threatened to spill down my cheeks as we prayed in thanksgiving for the blessings God had given us. I attempted to take a bite of food and felt it stick in my throat. I couldn’t swallow. I blinked hard to keep the tears from falling. I set my fork down and bowed my head. Everyone at the table was quiet. “I can’t. I can’t do this.” I whispered. I ended up excusing myself from the table shortly afterward.
While time has helped ease many of my wounds, the Christmas season has never been quite the same for me. My heart becomes anxious the closer we get to December 21st. It can cast a shadow on my mood and my ability to celebrate the season. I often wonder if I will ever get back to that idyllic feeling that I used to have before my world caved in around me.
Maybe you are feeling this way too. Maybe you have endured suffering in your life and while you want to be happy and joyous, your heart just can’t get to that place quite yet. You may even wonder if you will ever feel truly joyful and happy again. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a death; it can be any number of things that is making it so that your heart is heavy. What can we do to help make it through this beautiful time of year when our hearts should be rejoicing but instead are crying out in pain?
What helps me the most when I am feeling this way is to focus on the joy that my children are experiencing. Joy is contagious and when I fixate my heart and mind on their innocent anticipation and joy, my own anxieties seem to be less and my own joy more abundant.
There are other things to do to help get our hearts and minds in a more celebratory mood. Here are a few that have helped me through the years:
- Listen to Christmas music. I know this seems trite, but hearing uplifting Christmas music can help to get you in the mood to celebrate. Don’t be ashamed to sing loud! Sing even if you don’t feel like it.
- If you can, go to a Christmas play or presentation. We went to a Christmas musical that made me more excited about Christmas than I have been in years. This year it has helped set the tone of my heart. It’s fun and allows us to remember those Christmases before our pain took over.
- Pick a family to bless or do random acts of kindness for others. When we do for others it’s easier to set aside our own worries and troubles. When we bring joy to others, joy infiltrates our own lives too.
- Decorate. I know this may be the last thing you want to do, but do it if you are able. Surround yourself with beautiful things of the season that help you to remember that there is still so much beauty to celebrate.
- Pray as a family. Praying for your own family as well as bringing the needs of others to the feet of Christ is powerful. It helps to remind us that God is there for us in every moment of our lives. He sees what is in our hearts and He desperately wants us to rely on Him. There is something very beautiful about praying together as family. The unity and comfort it brings is unbeatable!
- If your pain comes from the absence of a loved one, even if they have not died, remember them in a special way. Light a candle, have a space set aside for pictures or special items, or set a place at the table for the one you are missing. They may not be at your side, but because they are in your heart they are always with you.
- Set aside time to just be alone or to cry if you need it. Don’t feel like you have to be “happy” every second of the day. Don’t stay in that painful place, but if you need to cry, cry.
- Surround yourself with people who will support you in your pain but who will also encourage you to see the joy and goodness that is all around you.
- Each day find something to be grateful for. Write it down and keep an ongoing list. Before long you will see that even in pain there is so much good in your life too.
While these ideas won’t take away your pain, maybe they can help you to find a tiny bit of joy in the Advent and Christmas seasons. That tiny spark has the potential to help start a wildfire of joy in your life, but you have to try to fan the flame a little too.
I know that even though the season is supposed to be merry and bright, when our hearts are encrusted in pain it can be next to impossible to see, let alone participate in, the joy surrounding us. While the world wants to celebrate, perhaps you just want to cry. It’s ok if you need to do this. Please know you aren’t alone. I understand and am praying for you. Please pray for me too.