I know, I know. It may be February now, but you are humming right along with me. “Decorations of red, on a green Christmas tree…won’t be the same, dear, if you’re not here with me…”
I’d never heard of a “Blue Christmas” (or “Comfort”) service before the middle of last December: it’s a church service for those experiencing grief, a sense of loss during the holidays. But now I have added it to my list of “New Experiences I Never Wanted to Have, and Yet It Did Something Good.”
All this came about because, on December 9th, I had shared – on Facebook – the “Worldwide Candle Lighting” that was going on, an international day of remembrance that occurs each year on the second Sunday of December, created by The Compassionate Friends as a way to honor our deceased children. (TBH, I felt a little irritated, like my emotions were not already flayed and raw…and now this big fat yank on my chain? Like I have to adopt a particular pose…like I don’t grieve Mark every single second of every single day? I participated, in the end, but mostly to be in solidarity with other grieving parents…oh. Wait. I think that’s the point. OK, just…ignore all that rant).
Under my post, in one of the comments, a friend noted that her church in PA had held a service for parents like me that same weekend – a “Blue Christmas” service. A what? Is this an Elvis thing? Oh, oh I see. I was instantly curious and asked her for the order of worship, which she sent.
Because, being an overachiever and still trying to get that A+ in Grief Management, I’m already planning to hold one at my church next year, for “those sad people.” (Remember that Grief Group I started “facilitating” this past October? For other people who “needed a group?” Joke’s on me: I’ve been gaining far, far more than I have offered. It is an amazing gift; they are an amazing gift.)
A day later, I saw a note in a community newsletter about a nearby church offering this same service, and that afternoon or maybe the next day, Maryann wrote me about one being offered by yet another local church, one she attends, on December 20th. Ouch! Geez, God. I GET IT! In spite of what I felt was a firm, Divine Poke, I replied to Maryann in my usual, post-October-2015 way, terrified of making a commitment that I would ultimately have to renege on (my fear being that, without a whole lotta Stamina and Fortitude, I might absolutely lose my sh*t amongst strangers): I told her I would attend if I thought I could handle it.
Fall is just going to be hard for me, at least for a long while. October’s “crapiversary”-heaviness had packed on the holiday pounds, too, as we weathered our fourth Thanksgiving and Christmas without Mark. I’m not as weepy as I once was, except in spurts, but the hard, unyielding truth of his physical absence is solidly, squarely, sitting on my shoulders, laying on my chest. No more PTSD-fog, no more denial. Reality has arrived. So, with all those ups and downs, household maintenance issues that were draining our bank account, medical scares — and in spite of uplifting, surprising encounters (like I described in my prior post), I really wasn’t sure what was going to be good for me, my soul, my spirit (as much as I wanted to go with Maryann, to be with her) – and I am grateful for friends who allow me to be me. As December 20th approached, though, I felt like it was the right thing to do. So off we went.
Maryann’s new church home – one of a couple she has found, that lift her soul – is one attended by a predominantly black congregation. We were the only white people in attendance that night, and that is as far as my classifiers need go: the warmth and welcome she experiences often, and I experienced for the first time (everyone’s a hugger!), raised the atmospheric temperature to “comfy.” Boxes of tissues were within view, one in every row, and being utilized already. I settled into our pew.
I do not remember everything. Some of the hymns we sang (or that were sung) were unfamiliar, but lovely. Some of the service was focused on the deceased who were dear to/members of the congregation (of course) and it sounded like most of them had been elderly; only one person, a humble man, talked about losing a child, his son, about the essential wrongness of it. But one woman, the worship leader, said one thing that really stuck with me. Paraphrasing part of Jesus’ famous sermon called “The Beatitudes,” she reconfigured one line for us mourners, as follows:
Blessed are those who [let themselves fully] mourn, for they shall be comforted.
In a world – especially in the US – where we all like to pretend everything is great, all the time (I have a friend who calls Facebook “Bragbook”), it can be rather hard to lay out your truth, your really real reality for anyone, including yourself. And, if we are honest, we also do not always put our Real Selves in front of God: we pray, we bargain, we ask for stuff for ourselves or others, but do we always share exactly what we are feeling, exactly where we are? Like, “how the &$*! do you expect me to get through this? Especially when I feel like You abandoned me, abandoned all of us!” Good people spend too much time trying to stuff themselves into a Perfect Mold (“oh, I shouldn’t be mad at God, I should be more humble…when I pray I have to use the exact right words,” etc), when God (a) prefers us honest and messy, and (b) is really the only one who can change us into who we were made to be anyhow. So I found her paraphrase (or perhaps it is the truer, original meaning of Jesus’ words) to be spot on: those who allow themselves to experience the fullness of grief, the depth of their pain…those who let themselves fall into the darkness, screaming out their questions and doubts to a God who often, especially in those early days, seems as silent as our children’s graves…those who give themselves to the process and don’t give up…can somehow, almost improbably, in time, find enough comfort, enough peace, and Something More.
At the end of December I read “Cancer is Funny” by Jason Micheli. He’s a young pastor, married to his HS sweetheart, with two teen boys, and recently assigned to the church where we have our grief group meetings, in fact. A few years ago he was unexpectedly diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a rare and terrible cancer. He went through almost a year of grueling, aggressive chemo treatments which he barely survived (physically, mentally and spiritually) and is now in hopeful but realistic remission, AND: it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Seriously. This man appeals to my inner 4th grade boy in terms of his humor, so be duly warned.
What he writes is, I think, what I am talking about above and what I try to write as well – his truth and his true story, including the parts he might be inclined to be ashamed of if he were anyone other than himself (he has virtually zero shame; this man has more metaphors for his private parts – which were uncomfortably “on display” far, far too often as he was poked and prodded and cut open and sewn up – than anyone in the world, I think), i.e., the messy, human, terrified parts where he, a pastor who is expected to lead, shepherd and show the way, questions everything. And that is the grit of it: it’s okay to have doubts, in fact it is terribly normal. He even points out how the resurrected Jesus often seems to disappear not long after He shows up, leaving us wondering if we just saw what we thought we saw (like Tweety Bird and that Puddy Tat? Is that a good metaphor?)…and I cannot express how much I needed to hear that blunt, bald-faced honesty from him. Whether a terrible diagnosis, the loss of your child, intimate knowledge of the deliberate pain humans can inflict on one another, or (God help us) all of those – these hard hurting things take all of us to the edge, and then into blackness.
So, over the course of those many moments, days, weeks and months: what can save us? What small spark of light comes to illuminate that darkness and bring warmth back to our inert, aching bodies? And is it a gift or a choice or both? I can only answer this for myself. But this is how I see it…
LOVE. Love comes in so many forms, and we can bat it away or let Love in. Love sits with us, weeps with us, agrees when we shout out our confusion and anger. Love is that author who spoke to your soul, that writer who was brave enough to be blunt and honest and faithful all at once. Love protects our walls and gives us a safe space to rest, demanding nothing. Love listens, cooks for us, fights for us, teaches us, celebrates and affirms the dreams and little signs of our beloveds’ continuing existence. Love acknowledges that we will never be the same, and yet will do everything to encourage us to take the first feeble step forward. Love points to (and maybe introduces us to) Hope, to the One who is always and forever at work, making all things new.
Love and Hope say to you, right now, “Here is a brand new day. We’re here with you. And yes, sweetheart, yes…you’re shattered by This, absolutely cracked open…and yet, as Our friend Philip Yancey says, ‘Imperfection is the prerequisite for grace. Light only gets in through the cracks.’ Even in This…maybe because of This, you can grow. Just like muscles can only get stronger because of the tiny tears that occur when they are worked to their limit (and then rested before working again – that part is so important! You MUST rest!), will you also allow This (it’s a choice!) to be worked into, improbably transformed into the way you finally recognize and pursue what truly matters and truly lasts? Because those cracks? Light spills back out of you more easily now as well, and the world can always use more improbable Love and Hope.”
And yeah, I know, this post ended a lot like this one, from about the same time last year, but as I’ve said before (or did I? Can’t remember…), I have spiritual amnesia and need to hear the same things, over and over again.