When Christmas Hurts

I once made up my mind to get a divorce on Christmas morning. My alcoholic husband had not come home. It wasn’t the first time and Christmas wasn’t his holiday, but this was my Christmas morning. It wasn’t what I deserved and it wasn’t what my little girl deserved.

Another Christmas, my heart hurt so badly I could barely go outside. My new baby had died. I had his blanket, but he was gone. I didn’t want to live because it hurt too much. And Christmas—every image of Mary holding baby Jesus—made me cry again.

When your heart is broken, Christmas can really hurt. It’s easy to drown in false family images and media hype. It feels impossible to swim against the tsunami of “should’s” and “if only’s.”

Here’s how to survive a blue Christmas.

 1. See the hype for what it is.

The first step is to see the media hype for what it is: lies told by advertisers. Every advertisement wants to sell you an emotional image because that’s how the companies make money. They don’t know you personally and they don’t care about who you are. They know that manipulating people’s dreams increases sales. Images of happy families and romantic couples sell products but do not tell any truth about real families, real couples or real life.

So shut out the false images. Turn off your TV. If you watch old movies, remember that the movie producers needed to make money too. You can sing “White Christmas” all you want, but in the real world, snow is cold and needs to be shoveled.

2. Look to January.

Try taking your mind past the Christmas season. January is real so go there. Make concrete plans to start new things in January. If your heart is broken, try experimenting with online dating in January, just to see how it feels. Maybe you’ll learn something new. Is there a hobby you’ve always wanted to try? Sign up for a class in January, and do it now.

3. Be honest about family.

Family dysfunction is a third source of Christmas pain. Even if we only see our family once a year, Christmas really rubs our noses in the yuck. Not only do we get all the old patterns shoved in our face, but myths about so-called happy families make everybody crazy.

It’s a myth is that all families are happy or should be. What’s real is that families are happy sometimes, but all families—all families— have hidden, unhealthy, unhappy patterns.  Some have a few, and some have many, but all families have problems.

There’s only one way to move towards a happier family, and that is to openly work on what is not working. But media and our culture pretend that none of that exists. We think, “Wow, what’s wrong with me?” And the holidays, with all the “family togetherness” messages make us feel that we’re the only ones who aren’t happy.

One way to handle this is the temporary patch, the “I can do it for a few days” technique. If it makes your mother happy that you go to church with her, you can try doing it, telling yourself that it’s only one day a year. As you sit in church, you can plan amazing and creative January rewards for yourself.

But what if sitting with your belittling, criticizing father makes you feel hopeless and crazy? There are good people who do not go home for Christmas.

Just because it’s family does not mean it is good.  Just because someone says they love you does not mean they know how to love you in the best way. Some of the cruelest wounds from families happen when a family member says they are loving you when in fact they are manipulating, hurting, belittling or abusing.

Maybe you need to find other family. Not blood family, but people who support you and care for you. That’s what real family love is— not a false façade, not fake emotions.

And you need to talk to a therapist. Many family patterns destroy individuals with their cruelty.  A therapist’s job is to support you while you learn how to love yourself better.

Perfect families—which is such a part of Christmas hype—are a fantasy that hurts people. Even though most people want to hide family problems, denying them is exactly what causes emotional pain and illness.

Lasting joy comes when we see the unhealthy along with the healthy. I am  whole and so are you—but we are complete, complex packages with both good and challenging qualities. And that is okay.

Being happy and whole with your own family is possible. There are  truly happy families— But their joy is neither automatic nor easy. Taking the first steps towards real family happiness means seeing a sympathetic therapist and getting open-hearted, nonjudgemental support for the real you. Then you can scrape off the fake roles and discover the truth of love that might lie hidden underneath.  A  real family loves the authentic you, not the pretend you. That’s where real family love is.

 

4. Look for the light beyond despair.

But what if someone you love has died? There’s no quick fix. Turning off the TV and making new plans won’t touch that pain.

Think instead about love itself. The love that person had for you still exists because love itself never ends.  Yes, it’s easier when they have their arms around you in physical form. But real love is an unseen, eternal thing.

Love is forever, without beginning or ending. It’s stronger than bodies and bigger than time. Love stretches unchanged from before time began to beyond the horizon of eternity. You still have that love now, today. You always will. If you sit quietly and close your eyes, you can still feel the love.

Buddhists teach that after death the family or loved ones should send thoughts of encouragement and love to the dead person. The idea is that the one who has died can then feel that it’s okay to move on into another level of existence.

Try sitting quietly and sending your loved one a message of encouragement and gratitude. Even if your loved one died in pain, you can feel gratitude that the pain has ended and that your loved one is free and at peace.  It doesn’t bring them back, but it might help you see today in a new way.

If there is just no relief from your grief, then see a therapist. The death of a loved one can feel like trying to carry 1000 pounds. You don’t have to carry it alone; it’ll hurt you to keep trying to do it alone. Grief therapists exist to help you carry the weight.

Light in the Darkness

In the end, Christmas—like life—is about light in the darkness. I’ve been in despair. What I know for sure is that, if I get help and keep breathing, the year turns. It happens slowly, but the light comes back. Not in the way I wanted, maybe. After all, my marriage was really over. My dead baby was really gone. But eventually something changed because things always change. I had three more perfect, exquisite babies. Eventually I found a partner who cherished me as I really was.

And so sit with me now in the darkness. I know your despair. Life is sometimes cruel. Families hurt us and loved ones abandon us. And no matter how much we love someone, bodies stop working and people die. I know that darkness.  It seems that the light will never come back.

Here, take my hand.  Breathe with me. Let yourself open to the things you have never imagined. The darkness around us is complete and that is okay.

Darkness is the source of all birth. Darkness is the womb of hope. The year always turns. The sun always rises.  Death is a beginning, not an end.

Breathe slowly with me. Be gentle to yourself. Wrap yourself in kindness like grandma’s quilt and wait.

I know something that you don’t know. The love inside you is a seed. Your only job is to wait for the sun.

Christmas matters because it is the darkest time of the year. It is the longest night. Our job is to trust that change happens. Sit with me.  I promise you that the light will come again.

In Ely, Minnesota, we will have a “Longest Night” service for people who feel quiet, thoughtful or sad at Christmas. The service will be at the First Presbyterian Church at 6 pm on December 21st. This will be a gentle, quiet, heart-energy service of love and remembrance. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you are Christian.

The Flash Up Ahead

Life hits hard. Death rips away what’s false, and all I can see is clear light. When someone dies, there’s a flash. I realize—again— that only love matters. I gasp as if lightning had sizzled and lit the night.

I remember being young, walking up the stairs of a red brick church with Mom and Dad. The parents of the dead teenager stand next to her coffin, hugging people, talking. Their eyes shine so that it hurts to look. It’s not the tears. It’s the flash, the clear love, that stuns me.

Her death was foolish. Who would sit on a light boat as it was being towed on a trailer? It was nothing, just a second. One bump.

The brilliance in the eyes of this mother and father blinds me. I look away because I’m young. I can’t look because it finds every crack in me. 

When I was young I hadn’t learned that love itself is bigger than happy or tragic, good or bad. It’s bigger than any label or word. It’s everything, like the sky beyond the clouds. It’s awareness itself, love calling to love, God outside of time.

Daily life and thoughts hide the sky, even though we yearn to see it. We want hope, but we don’t know how to find it.

Death’s work is so strange. It tears us open. It rips the clouds away so that the sky beyond, the awareness that is love, is just obvious. Undeniable. The flash, the vision of love, shocks us so completely that, even in our childishness and our denial, we fall to our knees.

When I was young, I didn’t know that being on my knees—knowing that I love and am loved—is the whole reason for life. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my knees to button someone’s coat or kneeling at a funeral.

I wish I could say that meditating taught me this, but it didn’t. Pain, loss and despair taught me, and they were harsh about it.

What meditation taught me was that what I thought was flashing off and on—the love, the light, forever, peace, kindness—shines as a beacon, steady, never flashing, never dimming. In silence as I meditated, I learned to sense the deeper reality that is God. I learned how to see the sky that the clouds hide.

Now, as an old woman, I’m always searching for those flashes, the moments when God is undeniable, when only love exists. Each one is priceless. I gather each one close and roll it in my fingers because I know this is the only thing that matters.

Here’s one when my baby sleeps on my chest and smiles in her sleep. Here’s another when my love holds me close and doesn’t let go. Here’s a tiny white coffin. Here’s a girl skating alone on a lagoon, a toddler singing in the bathtub, my grandmother combing her soft white hair, and a teenager practicing Shakespeare. “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

What I know now is that in love, there is no time at all. There is no before and after. At this funeral, the brilliance in the parents’ eyes is the exact same instant as when they danced in the living room with that baby girl, when they combed out her snarls and braided her hair, when they daubed baking soda on her chicken pox, when they taught her to parallel park.

Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes, it’s a cliché. But above the sentiment is the open sky itself. No storm can touch it.

And so I gather my flashes and smile. This is my life. I look into your eyes, and it’s your life too. You reach for me.

It’s the movement between us that is sacred. It’s our dance, the flash of light on faces, the light of one kind glance, the shape of hands touching that is the divine spark.

I stay on my knees now, knowing there are flashes all around me. This is my holy place. This is how I worship. I gaze into the flashes and never look away.