When the Holidays Aren't Happy

I sit at a dealership while repairs are made to my car—a recall—one more thing demanding my attention on the first day of December. I find the most secluded spot to wait, hiding from the constant noise of a children’s TV program. Over the loudspeaker holiday music declares, “It’s the happ-happiest time of the year!”

Yeah, right.

I quickly replace the blaring music with my own; soft strings playing instrumental praise music through my headphones. Music that soothes instead of irritates, comforts instead of confronts. The jolly words are hard to hear this year, and my heart is not in the things I usually love: the preparations, decorations, music and food.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s been my practice to pray for those who have lost loved ones during the year. For an empty chair at the table. For breaking hearts while hanging the stockings or trimming the tree.

Now I’m on that list. I find I need to pray for myself.

No amount of Christmas cheer can push away the sadness of losing major supports in my life—first my father, then my closest friend six months later. My dad’s death necessitated a move to assisted living for my mother and it’s been a rough transition. I am on the receiving end of her anger over her physical, mental, and emotional loss of control. My oldest son moved far away, making it impossible for him to be near for the holidays. I move from one duty to another in muted grief, only allowing tears to come at safe times. Lighthearted greetings from others fall on deaf ears, like the cashier’s cry at the drug store, “Welcome to Walgreens!” as you enter the door.

The words feel perfunctory. Canned. Insincere. Annoying.

Even the white lights twinkling throughout my house don’t lift my spirits. My heart is simply not in the trappings of tree, garland, and ribbons. Buying and wrapping presents for my large family seems insurmountable. I struggle to keep priority things in the forefront of my mind. I end up in a room not knowing why I went in. Everything is off-kilter. I see my reflection in my computer screen and lyrics to another song come unbidden…

You with the sad eyes

Don’t be discouraged

Oh I realize

It’s hard to take courage

In a world full of people,

You can lose sight of it all

And the darkness inside you

Can make you feel so small…


Someone else gets it.

How do you navigate the season with a heavy heart? One glance around lets me know I’m not alone. . . friends battling cancer, one an insidious kind that can strike any time in any organ of the body; a couple whose baby, born at 25 weeks, is battling for life and breath; another family losing a teenage son to a long illness; a young husband and father dying in a car accident; drought; fire destroying a resort city; divorce and political upheaval. There are myriad fellow strugglers.

How do we make sense of it all?

I find I have no answers, just compassion—for myself as well as others. I ask God for simple things: Strength for today. One pressing thing checked off a list. An idea for tonight’s dinner and the wherewithal to prepare it. I realize my limitations and do only what I can, peacefully. I step away from the pressure to make the Christmas season more than it needs to be. Instead of avoiding the bell ringers outside department stores, I stop to chat a moment and leave a generous donation. I delete unwanted emails, not giving them a moment’s thought. I drive the speed limit. I decline invitations that will sap my emotional strength.

I give myself grace.

I allow time to grieve, granting myself permission to cry and process again—layer upon layer. I reread the words I wrote in “The Other Side of Sorrow.” I remind myself what I said about escaping sadness: to get to the other side, you must walk through.

There are no shortcuts to grief. It’s a meandering path leading through unknown territory—to follow means not knowing where you are at times or how long the trip will take. But there are places to stop and rest. They wait, and invite.

There is grace if we lift our eyes long enough to glimpse it.

After my car is done, I go see two-year-old Micah who is missing his Nana. I laugh with him and talk about important things. How much I love him. Oscar working in the yard. The trash men and their truck.

We climb in his fire engine bed and read a book about noses and another on Daniel in the lion’s den. Life goes on, and so will I.

We sing Jingle Bells.