By JALETTA ALBRIGHT DESMOND
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Ten years ago this month I wrote a column about grief at Christmas. That terrible irony has haunted me since the 2012 season began. I didn’t want to re-read it.
Last Friday morning I opened the old computer file to share it with a reader who was struggling with issues of grief within his family.
Then, a few hours later, Hell fell on Newtown, Conn. And our entire country saw and felt grief become a part of the holiday. It will likely be a part of the holiday tradition in Newtown for years to come.
“They” warned us the holidays would be difficult. “They” said it would be particularly tough the first year without our daughter. “They” were right.
And now I know more than two dozen families in New England who are breathing, barely, with the same heavy hearts. Although grief is never worn exactly the same way, I’m familiar with these early days — the first few hours and uncounted days where shock envelops you, numbing your mind and drugging your heart. There’s a fog that makes thoughts and feelings vague. There’s a sense that mental and emotional function is wrapped in pain absorbing material. You feel the blows but you keep getting up and moving, somehow, despite being hit again and again.
The families personally swept up in this national nightmare will probably be unable to remember these days that they will never, ever forget.
Ten years ago the column I wrote about that kind of complicated grief was inspired by a woman who lost her young son to cancer shortly before the holiday. While I was buying a beautiful Christmas tree ornament for an ornament exchange party, she told me about a message of peace she felt God gave her at this painful time and I marveled at her vision, her ability to see and feel God’s comfort in what could be a joyless season of Joy.
As I wrote in 2002, “I hunched there in the shop where we stood, writing my check for a fragile glass ornament, unstoppable tears falling, thinking how fragile life and joy are — and how this woman is struggling to put together the broken pieces of both.
“And, as ridiculous as it seems, she comforted me, urging me not to feel bad about crying in front of her because she probably cried earlier in the day and will cry again later. Tears, she said, are now a part of her daily life.
“But for one brief moment she was not alone in her grief. There was another person standing there with her, crying that moment’s tears for her.”
Now, 10 years later, I know those moments from the other side. Twenty-six families in Newtown, Conn., are learning about those moments from the other side, as well. Our country is learning about those moments and shedding those tears together.
“There are many people like this every holiday season,” I continued in my column in 2002, “people who are suffering from a loss in the midst of the celebration. It may be their first Christmas without a dear family member or friend. It may be their fifth, but the sadness lingers.
“While we are caroling, they may be crying. While we are shopping, they may be mourning. While we are running around trying to squeeze joy out of the stressful season, they may simply be trying to put one foot in front of the other every morning.
“It made me think about the others among us who need to know that their sorrow and loss will not be forgotten or ignored in the joy of the season. Maybe we should pause with them for a quiet moment and not be afraid to let the tears fall. Maybe we can offer them love, God can provide peace, and ... maybe, just maybe, some holiday season in the far future they will again experience joy.”
As I think of that Christmas past, I’ll keep that hope for joy close to me for Christmas future, just as I kept close to me that fragile glass ornament that I didn’t have the heart to exchange at the party. It’s hung on my tree, or in my office year round, as a reminder of the loss and grief of others, be it from death, divorce, a move or a job loss. Many are struggling with sorrow in this season of joy, struggling with sorrow throughout the year. We are seeing it more clearly this year than we ever have.
“It is a defining moment for our town,” said a Newtown official, “but it does not define us.” That is what many of us feel in the midst of tragedy and its aftermath — our lives are informed by it, but it doesn’t define us.
This season, and every season, I hope none of us are defined by death but by love and compassion. I hope we are defined by hope.
Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.