I had this thought today: "I hope I don't die just before Christmas". Crazy as it sounds, my year has been a bit rough and my health concerns have made me paranoid about every racing pulse or short breath. But when I thought this to myself, I actually wasn't overly concerned about dying just about dying this close to Christmas.
It was a cruel thought, particularly as a mere 6 days ago and 11 days before Christmas, 27 people, 20 of them children, were gunned down and killed in Newtown, Connecticut. The week before, a friend's sister had committed suicide. I know with certainty and without googling it that millions of people are suffering or dying in some sort of fashion regardless of the advent of December 25th. Of course, suffering or dying does not limit itself to calendar holidays, be they religious, secular, or silly. What are held fast to that digital or paper calendar, perhaps even one magnetized to your fridge, are the cultural and familial traditions that bind us to the rituals, emotions, and expectations of this particular "holy day".
Grief and loss can be unbearable in any context and fraught with private and painful reminders and triggers. But grief born at Christmas? A constant, excruciating sensory inundation of reminders - each song, smell, tinsel string a slap. Each year, a grief to be ushered in by early November and marched relentlessly through December in a fierce grip of public celebration, commercialism, and obligation.
When we were 24, my same-aged cousin nearly died. Just before Christmas, however, he came out of a coma, and the family rejoiced and did great goofy happy dances down the hospital halls. My cousin, however, came out of the coma a quadriplegic. He had a year of physiotherapy and suffering ahead of him. (spoiler alert: he has since recovered and is almost his old self) For years, we never understood why he would withdraw around Christmas time. He had lived! He had survived! He had proven all the "experts" wrong!
But, of course, he had lost a great deal too: his independence and mobility, for awhile; his short term memory, for a long time; his youth and innocence, forever. He grieved at Christmas, for his lost self. None of us in the family realized this until he finally stood his ground three Xmases ago and said, "I can't do this anymore". He couldn't fake the frivolity any longer. Christmas made him sadder than sad and none of us had noticed.
I don't need to tell you that Christmas oscillates, that some years it seems crass and others magical; some are twitch-inducing; others, delightful. I don't need to tell you that just as we are conscious of those in financial need at Christmas, we can be equally sensitive to those whose hearts are quietly breaking and re-breaking at every sight, smell, and sound of Christmas cheer, their grief and sadness inextricably and irrevocably linked to this cultural zenith of celebrations.
We can pray our own times come, late in life, on a bright, insignificant Spring day when frosts are slain and flowers begotten. Peace to all.
And, to banish what might be your imposed Christmas soundtrack of grief, there's nothing like a little Van Morrison, Summertime in England. It just is: