Walking in Newness of Life
Twelve days before Christmas, the mail brought a stack of season’s greetings and a divorce summons.
As I gathered the envelopes, I had no idea that a single moment was about to slash decades of family memories and traditions: searching for a fresh, fragrant tree; snuggling by the fire as carols played; reminiscing over snapshots of a growing child.
Now, 17 years later, I understand what I didn’t know then – surviving the holidays is tough for those who have lost loved ones.
The longer we live, the more experience we have with loss. But that doesn’t mean we get better at it. Memories linger everywhere. An empty chair at the table pricks our heart. A song yanks us back to the past. Our depression mounts, along with the dread of reading glowing newsletters from friends announcing family reunions and their kids’ gradepoint averages. We wonder, Why bother sending cards? After all, who wants to hear about our grief?
We forget that our heavenly Father is not uncomfortable with our heartbreak, and we shouldn’t be, either. God lets us cry, bottles our tears and feels what we feel. Jesus – God the Son – wept (John 11:35; Luke 19:41) and He spoke in anger. (Matthew 15:7-9; 16:23; John 2:16) Our feelings reflect how we are impacted: We experience sorrow or anger because loss occurred; We have a powerful desire to change our outcome along with the helpless realization we cannot; We tremble with fear that we won’t be able to function without the person now gone.
I heard about a widow who considered change disloyal to her husband’s memory. After 15 years, she hasn’t even rearranged furniture because it’s too painful. Then there’s Suzanna in West Virginia, whose husband died of cancer. Busyness helps her to avoid drowning in despair.
“I compare myself to a video that needs to play at normal speed,” she says. “I can’t put myself on ‘pause’ or I’ll bog down in a grief rut so deep I may never get out. If I try to ‘fast forward,’ I’ll miss what God is teaching me.”
But no matter who we’ve lost or why, don’t we owe it to ourselves to courageously embrace life’s losses? After all, they are intertwined with the history of what has shaped us into who we are today.
Our heartbreak and fear can open us to a strength far greater than our own. If we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth (John 14:17), God’s life within us will become stronger than the forces of death. But we must seize life. Each cycle on the calendar provides the opportunity to do that. For some of us, this means reconciling ourselves to living without the people we need or the happiness we expected. For others, it’s about burying what isn’t to make room for what is, so we aren’t trapped in un-lived lives.
Six months after receiving that summons, I erected a tombstone on the grave of my marriage by writing to my ex-husband. Timed to arrive the day the unwanted divorce was final, my note was an acknowledgment of our joint history and shared traditions, a thank-you for what was good and a goodbye to the me who was once his wife. Then, I took the next step by walking onto the front porch of the rest of my life.
The next Christmas, my daughter and I celebrated with an 18-inch artificial tree perched on a coffee table at a smaller house in a new city. Along the way, I learned that God’s love doesn’t necessarily mean He’ll change my circumstances; Instead, He changes me. For several years, the holidays were seared with pain. Now they are simply reminders that I live in a fallen world where people die and not everyone keeps a promise.
Whenever I can recall the past with gratitude that it even happened, I revolutionize its meaning. No longer do I avoid the faded photos in the albums. I even cherish my mental image of a family walking away from my recent garage sale, delighted with their $5 purchase: a huge cardboard box bulging with years of hand-made ornaments.
Reliving the story we don’t want to remember but cannot forget celebrates life. And celebrate we should, because nothing – not the death of loved ones or the disintegration of marriages – can separate us from God. (Romans 8:38; Hebrews 13:5) Our merciful Creator is always present and we are never more open to Him than when we languish in deep pain and brokenness. So even if there’s an empty chair at your table this Christmas, you are not alone. This year, celebrate Immanuel – God is with us.
Walking in Newness of Life appeared in In Touch magazine, December 2004. Copyright © In Touch Ministries. All rights reserved. Used with permission.