On December 1st, 2017 my husband Shawn was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. He never left the hospital for more than a short stint at home. Less than six weeks later, on January 9th, 2018 he died in my arms.
So to say that the holidays are fraught for me….well, that’s an understatement if I’ve ever heard one.
What are you supposed to do when you’re faced with a cancer diagnosis but can see the twinkling Christmas lights from your hospital room? What are you supposed to do when you are watching all the kids walk down the street dressed up for Halloween, and your own child is gone from this world? What are you supposed to do when you face the holidays without someone who carved the turkey or made the best cranberry sauce or said the blessing.
What do you do when you’re faced with the impossible at the holidays?
My friend Kumar asked me to come here today to talk about my life, and how I’ve managed to make it through the holidays over the past two years. I’ve written a lot about it on my blog and even for a few newspapers. But I don’t really have any answers. I just have my own story.
While I have a few ideas about how to approach the holidays in a practical sense, I guess what’s so hard to come to terms with is how I’m going to continue to move through this holiday season – and every future holiday season – while still making meaning of my life and honoring Shawn. How can I embrace my husband, and the loss of him, while not fully rejecting the joy that’s part of this time every year?
I actually listened to a sermon the other day at my church, and it got me to think more about this time period, which is, of course, called “advent” for Christians. (As a note, advent is the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and is a season observed in many Christian churches as a time of “expectant waiting.”) That night, I came home and opened the New York Times, and read an article by Tish Warren about the advent season and embracing the darkness during it. I started searching online about advent and as I read more and more, I got a bit of a lesson in how I might best be able to best move through this time period each year.
Now, before I start down this path, I need to note that I am no religious scholar and not a very good Christian either. So what I’m going to say next is about Christianity and advent, but really, I mean it to be non-religious. I just think that understanding the Christian meaning of this time period can shed some light about how to think about this season – especially as mourners.
In Christianity, the advent season is a time of waiting, yes, but it is also a time of longing, darkness and even of mourning. It’s a season of duality and uneasy contradictions, a time when we are actually supposed to reflect on the chaos and struggle that is part of this world. As Americans, we want to decorate the season, of course, make it beautiful and bright and about Santa and cookies and presents. But, really, this time is one that’s known in the Christian church as a time to reflect on our collective humanity…and not all of it is pretty.
Yes, advent culminates in the birth of Christ – one of the most joyful events on the Christian calendar. But isn’t joy even more profound, more real, more true, if we have to wait in the darkness ahead of time? During this period, Christians are supposed to search for justice in an unjust world and hope in a time of despair. But if we take it a bit father, can’t we apply this to our own lives as well? To the parts of our lives that make us feel sad or even despondent? Is it really best to run away from it all?
Maybe when we dismiss the pain that’s around us, we also partially dismiss the joy that is out there in the world.
When Shawn was alive, we loved so many things about the holiday season, but there is one thing that stands out now: the way he decorated our house. He bought a number of inflatable objects and a zillion lights and little light-up reindeer and floodlights to make it all show up for anyone who might otherwise be missing it. I mean, he used to string so many lights all over our house that it looked like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in our front yard. I mercilessly mocked him for it. Now I miss it, of course.
And sometimes, when I’m getting into the car in December, and the kids are running around the yard and I remember what it was like when there were ten times more lights in our yard and I feel a pang of grief in that moment – sometimes I want to ignore that memory and just keep moving.
But here’s the thing. If I try and smooth over the pain I feel when I miss Shawn in those tiny moments, if I just keep moving without letting my breath catch a little and maybe even cry for a bit….well, then, the joy I do feel – that joy of, say, Christmas morning with young kids, when Tommy runs around with such excitement because he’s five and just can’t handle it all – then that joy isn’t quite as bright.
If I don’t let myself feel sad in the moments before Christmas morning, the joy of Christmas morning will be diminished for me. In other words, if I really want to see the joy in my life, I have to embrace the pain too.
I think that advent – and really all of the holiday season, no matter what you believe, is about joy. But it’s also about embracing pain, feeling grief because we miss those we’ve lost, and waiting a bit in the darkness.
*This speech is excerpted from a longer talk Marjorie gave at an event titled: “Lights of Love: Remembering Those We Love” put on by the Washington Home on December 11, 2018.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.