Of course having just relocated back to Tennessee, I've experienced lots of firsts. My first Thanksgiving back in Franklin. My first day of work at New Hope Academy.
But this week I experienced another kind of "first".
On Wednesday, December 9th, I had my first birthday without my parents.
Earlier this year I shared quite a bit about my parents' illnesses, and a few weeks later, their deaths. It's been a difficult year without them. Their absence has left a hole in my heart. A place that I don't think anything or anyone will fill. It's a space that I think even Jesus will allow to remain empty until I see Him face-to-face. Until I see my parents again too.
As Christmas quickly approaches, I've been thinking about what the holiday will be like without my parents. Almost every Christmas we've traveled 18 hours to spend the holiday with our families in Maryland.
This year will be so different without my parents.
They will be sorely missed.
So as I work through the emotions of approaching my first Christmas without my parents, I am also thinking of others that are grieving during this time.
It only takes a scroll down my Facebook newsfeed to see what others are dealing with at this time:
- An old schoolmate and coworker in her forties who recently lost her husband
- A friend and co-laborer in foster care ministry whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia a week after her adoption was finalized
- A lady from my old church facing the unknowns of cancer that is no longer responding to treatment, and the uncertainties facing her husband and 8 kids
One thing's for sure this Christmas -- people are rejoicing and grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the birth of our Savior. BUT lots of people are hurting too. This dichotomy points to the paradox of the cross. We are joyful for the Savior's death and resurrection that offers us new life in Christ.
But the cross began with Jesus' death. I can only imagine the pain and sorrow the cross brought Jesus, His mother Mary and his closest followers and friends.
So as we approach Christmas with all manner of difficulties facing us, I'd like to share a few ways we can support those hurting around us. I'll share the first today...
We Can Empathize with Grieving Friends
A huge way to bless others when they're grieving, especially during the holidays, is to simply say, "I'm so sorry. I can only imagine how difficult this time must be for you." We don't have to have all the answers or give a sermonette on why a person should have joy despite their loss.
One emotion that often accompanies grief is GUILT. When a soldier loses fellow soldiers in combat, she usually experiences survivor's guilt. When a person's entire family dies in a car accident, and he somehow escapes the wreckage with a few bumps and bruises, s(he) also experiences survivors guilt. This kind of guilt brings with it the question, "Why was I the one spared?" This kind of guilt is often unfounded, but totally understandable.
When I lost my parents, I didn't expect to experience a similar kind of guilt. I had flown back and forth from Arkansas so I could be by my parents' sides in the hospital. I had conversation after conversation with their doctors. I followed their vitals reports, knew when their white blood counts went up and their red blood counts when down and discussed every "procedure" (the new name for surgery) that they were encouraged to have.
But with all the advances of medicine, it was my parents' time to go. My father seemed to know this. He'd said several times to me in the hospital, "Well, I'm thankful. God gave me 80 years." He'd bragged so often about reaching age 80. My sisters Lori and Sherri and I had no idea it would be his last year with us.
He passed away on January 20, just 3 days shy of his 81st birthday.
When my Daddy passed, I was back in Arkansas with my husband and four children. He and my Mom's health had stabilized, and I figured I'd return quickly if either took a turn for the worst. But my father passed with very little warning. I had no opportunity to return before he passed. I struggled with that for weeks. I felt guilty for having left.
I also felt guilty for not doing enough for my parents. For not pushing the doctors to take stronger measures sooner and more often. For not insisting my father rest more during my mother's illness. I think I created things to feel guilty about.
I share this heartbreaking aspect of grief to simply share this thought... When a person grieves a loved one, they can often be plagued by guilt. This guilt might be unfounded. It might be completely incomprehensible. But it's very real.
Also, this guilt makes it a terrible time time to pour on more guilt. After all, a Christian that's grieving knows that God is still good. (S)he probably knows that Jesus is still the reason for the season. They also know that their family member would want them to continue to embrace life and experience joy during this season.
What grieving souls do need is a reminder that we are still loved by the family and friends that are still with us. We do need to know that others hurt for and with us. We definitely need to know that our loved ones lives were a blessing and that they are missed by others too.
What we need is empathy. Not pity. Not a sermon. And definitely not more guilt.
Empathy is love in action. Empathy is an emotional hug. Empathy says, "I care about you and love you right where you are."
This Christmas, the first gift we can wrap and present to those hurting around us is empathy.