On the 21st of last December, the Guardian news-site published an online article presenting stories, submitted by readers, about experiences of loss and grief during Christmas. I remember it being a great, compelling and diversely insightful read as so many different stories from different people were presented. One such contributor wrote, “Christmas has amplified my grief. I’ve been made dizzy by the twinkling lights, festive songs and endless present-buying. The pressure to be happy has knocked me off my feet. Usually I can keep up with all the festive cheer, but this year I am not fit for the marathon.” That article encouraged me to be more open and generous with my own story of loss. My own testimony.
We all struggle with something. We all have something, big or small, “minor” or “major”, which has signified pain in our past and perhaps even our present. The loss of a friend. The death of a pet. Moving to a new home. A breakup. Grief is a part of the human experience. One that doesn’t go on break over the holidays. In fact, this particular time of year, one characterized by the media as a time of joy and togetherness, may actually serve to “amplify” one’s pain, sorrow and loneliness.
I lost my mother to breast cancer on the 22nd of December, nearly four years ago, now. I remember that time very vividly. I remember the string of events, moments, mental images and conversations that lead up to that instant where gravity shifted, the air thinned and things changed forever. I remember.
December 16th, 2013. I think it was a Monday. I was 18 and away at school. I wrote my last exam of my very first semester of University that day. I was so excited. I survived four months of engineering school. Now I get to go home! In fact, I had booked a bus ticket for the next day. Four hours on a Greyhound from Windsor to Toronto. I was so thrilled to return, I speed-walked, through the snow, like an Olympian to my dorm to Skype my family, even though it was almost 10:00 pm. I dialed, waited, and after a pause, my dad picked up. We left the video off so it was just audio. We said our ‘hey’s and ‘how’s-it-going’s. I was just simply excited.
My dad answered with a heavy tone that night. Tired. Probably exhausted. After a brief time-period, he broke the news to me. I asked, “How are things?” He answered, “Well, Nathanael, unfortunately, things aren’t going well at all.” Wait, what happened?
“No? What happened?”
“Well, at the last doctor’s appointment, the doctor gave your mother about three weeks to live.”
And that was the moment things changed. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how I responded, after that, or how the call ended. I remember the weeping after. Frantically scribbling I-don’t-know-what in my notebook. Would writing my thoughts out help? I don’t know. I didn’t know precisely what was happening, then, or the magnitude and the significance of what was about to occur over the next six days.
The next evening, my brother picked me up from the Greyhound station on Bay street, Toronto. He was already walking through all of this when I saw him. He had been there, at home, watching the final act of mom’s illness unfolding for weeks and weeks. Having been away from it all, in an alternate universe it seems, I had just been plunged into reality the night before. It was the night of Tuesday, December 17, 2013. My parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. And I had no idea what was awaiting me once the car rolled into the driveway.
We pulled in. I dropped my stuff at the door. Immediately, me, dad, and my three siblings, who had all been waiting for me, ushered me up the stairs, around the corner, well lit by a chandelier, and into my parent’s bedroom, which had been turned into a home care-center for my mom. It’s where she had been, cared for by a nurse, bed-ridden, hooked up to morphine and whatever else, for weeks.
We gathered around her bed. I was instantly dejected. She was dying. Really. At the sight of hundreds of lines stranding from her emaciated body to the bed-side life-saving machinery, I wept, though I tried to hide it with fake fortitude. It was vanity. The dam of masculine immutability was instantaneously ruined as tears ran down my face in somber streams. My mother, her condition was very serious. She could only take in fluids. The injection of drugs into her system made it difficult for her to communicate, string together coherent phrases and understand, generally, what was happening around her. Yet, to much surprise, once I arrived, she could converse fairly clearly.
What was there to say, though? What could be said in such a dark, dismal moment like this? My father, as per tradition, didn’t forget to get mom flowers on their special day. 30 years. As for us children, we simply did our best to keep spirits high and the conversation positive. We clung to whatever hope we had. Despite everything, mom still managed to crack a few jokes, though she knew it was her time.
She died five days later. Three days before Christmas.
At her memorial service, I read from Isaiah 40:27-31:
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Finding Warmth in the Cold, Cold Season
Many of us, unfortunately, are in this place where we fight the contradictory feelings of grief, loneliness, and sadness, and the merely exterior appearance of happiness, togetherness, and comfort. For many of us, the Christmas spirit is but a facade which conceals the inner reality of emptiness.
In the four years since my mother’s leaving this earthly life, I haven’t found too many good, practical skills to make the pain go away. In fact, I haven’t really found any. I still feel pain at the faint memories of her smile, her singing, her abstract painting. At first, there were many awkward conversations to be had. Many private thoughts of regret, guilt and anger towards myself. I didn’t know how to feel, what to say, what expression to put on my face in almost any situation. What is grief? How do I grieve? I wondered if grief might be more journey than feeling. C.S. Lewis himself wrote, in A Grief Observed, “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.”
I think there are certain experiences, while enduring loss, that must be accepted. For example, one must endure all the awkward conversations as they’re hardly avoidable. And sadness is probably an appropriate thing to feel when having just lost someone who was important to you. But there are those other pesky feelings that I think are wrong to feel though very, very difficult to eradicate and confront. For me, it was the thought that, had I done more to support my mom, emotionally and with her treatment, while at home, maybe she would have lasted longer. Things like that.
Grief is complex and changes shape from experience to experience and from person to person. What I’ve endured is my own story. You have your own. Your own battle scars. What I think God has ordained as a means of solace is having fellowship with the body of Christ, being vulnerable with one another, and being utterly honest. Prayer. I spent too much time trying to figure out why God would allow my mother to die when all along there was a community of people that loved me, cared for me, and expressed the truest, most Christ-like form of compassion towards me when I was alone.
I don’t want to give advice lest I break my own rule (don’t give advice!) nor do I want to give simple “Jesus-answers” to anyone’s struggle. Take it from me, it can be absolutely infuriating at times hearing ‘Oh, I know what you’re going through.’ or ‘God is mysterious.’. However, if you’re reading this, and you’re going through messy, complicated stuff right now, it is my hope that, in all things, you would turn to God for comfort, strength and joy as I have.
The hope of Christmas isn’t that the pain will (immediately) go away, or that being with family will make it all better, but that a savior was born who bore suffering (Is. 53) so that suffering would, one day, someday, come to an end. My mother is now with her true heavenly Father. She doesn’t have cancer anymore. She doesn’t need chemo or morphine anymore. She’s dancing. She is where she was made to be! This is my hope, anchored in an objective historical event, expressed fiercely through the advent season, and replenished by the celebration of Christ’s birth.
Photo: Home for Christmas, by Thomas Kinkade, retrieved at http://www.paintinghere.com/painting/thomas_kinkade_home_for_christmas_6513.html