Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Hopes and Fears at Christmas

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight

She pushes the button by the miniature piano and begins to jump up and down as Frosty sings his seasonal song. Her younger sister follows her lead. Then the music stops. But they press the button and the happy tune resumes. From tree to fireplace, one decoration to another, our granddaughters light up our home.

The Christmas story is of course about a child. Everyone can identify with the joy of a newborn child. Adults everywhere love to give gifts to children—just to see the sheer delight that comes when preschoolers unwrap a new surprise.

The Bethlehem Christmas carol mixes light and dark images. The forces of good and evil are present. And hopes and fears become focused on one small child born in Bethlehem ravaged by war for millennia. Will the forces of eternal light overcome the evil Roman Empire?

Now as then, death and life meet at Christmas in profound and unsympathetic ways. In many towns Christmas will evoke tears. Fears have overwhelmed hope for those who lost a family member. Many of us can connect to that first Christmas when a loved one went—especially if the passing was unexpected as it is for all those families whose loved ones have been gunned down by terrorists.

Former President Jimmy Carter- Grandson Died, 2015

That Unexpected Call

Like many, I’ll not forget the Christmas my father died. I was 32 and busy as a school administrator. Our usual round of December parties was at an end. Christmas was only a few days away. And Christmas was in view at our house as it always is thanks to my wife’s forward thinking. Our son was 5—a great age to record the joy of Christmas.

The unexpected call came in midday. My father died of a heart attack. My mother found him on the floor when she came home from work. It was the 20th of December—only five days until the biggest and happiest holiday of the year in the Christian world.

I went straight to the Columbia, MO airport and arrived in Philadelphia that night. A childhood friend took me home. I sat and listened as my mother recounted the sad story, which she would retell many times in the next few days. Friends came by with food and hugs. Cards poured in. Flowers and plants appeared.

Our only U.S. relatives drove down. Thanks to Uncle Tony who also died this year and my Cousin Pam. Aunts, Uncles, and cousins called from England. A friend cared for our son during the funeral and everyone tried to help our five-year old enjoy the holiday.

All around us people are trying to keep on going for the sake of young children—the hope of the future. But in their private moments, the deep darkness can be overwhelming. Grieving people need support. And immigrants like us often have only a few family members to gather round them. Local friends become family.

When Joy Isn't in the Christmas Photos

The grief of those who lost loved ones in mass shootings seems incomprehensible. How does any parent cope with the death of a child or spouse? How do loved ones embrace joy when a parent or sibling committed suicide? Each year military families struggle with loss. There are co-workers who lost spouses to disease; children whose parents died in an accident; large families whose gatherings will be marked by an empty chair—where a grandparent always sat.

Holidays like Christmas highlight our losses—especially when our loved ones die so close to the date.
They are supposed to be here—but they are absent;
Their presents are unopened;
Their usual words, smiles, unique contributions are gone.

For many, death meets life at Christmas. There’s a coffin alongside the crèche. A graveside scene replaces a nativity scene. Pictures of sadness replace smiling faces.

At My Father's Grave December, 1982

Most of us find ways to keep on going. The energetic hopes of our children help a lot. The comfort of close friends and family distract us from our grief and remind us that we are not alone in this world. I realize many will say God is there but people are the presence of God—they give the hugs and mirror our tears.

For most of us, the light shines again. Some look forward to a heavenly meeting. Others celebrate a life well lived—no matter how short. Some invest in meaningful projects to save the lives of others. Still others act to make life better for someone else in whatever way they can.

Many visit a cemetery and leave a flag or flowers. Some of us flip through old photo albums and recall the good times. It’s important that a person’s life has meaning.

Hopes and fears often comingle. Hope and fear are powerful forces.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend, Mike Jaffe, mentioned he finished a spiritual memoir. He added, “I mentioned your dad.” It was only a few years ago that I met this man and learned how my dad played a supportive role in his life as a young man.

Death takes lives away but it doesn’t cancel the goodness they left behind.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight

Helping a Grieving Friend or Relative

Grief and Loss information at the American Psychological Association

This post by Megan Devine offers suggestions on helping a friend.

This post by Katherine Britton suggests what NOT to say to a grieving person.

Bereavement counselling in the U.K.

Bereavement counseling for U.S. Veterans and their families.

And remember immigrants and refugees may feel especially lonely when families are thousands of miles away.

AP Photo

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