From Grief to Joy

Last week while watching TV, I heard one of the main characters say “not a day goes by that I don’t miss her.” He was referring to his late wife, who had passed away several years before.

That statement makes me sad. Not sad because of the grief he is feeling, but sad because I know that life can be better. You see, I’ve experienced loss and for many years I let that loss impact a whole holiday season…

My mother took her life on December 7th 1986, just 3 days before her 34th birthday. There is no denying that the effects of her decision are serious, and long-lasting. Even now I get choked up when telling my 3-year-old daughter stories that should include her grandmother or that attempt to explain why I no longer have a mommy.

For years following her death December was just kind of a crappy month for me and my family. The joy that many feel at Christmas was diminished if not missing in our world. As a college student I spent the Christmas season in Europe and missed out on many beautiful traditions, celebrations, and activities because I just couldn’t summon up “happy” in December.

Then one year I decided things needed to change for me. I decided that missing out on the joy around me was not acceptable. I decided that the words in the Bible about Jesus coming to bring life to the full meant that I needed to get rid of the “crappy December” because that and full life just didn’t fit together. So, I thought about it and decided that a way to change things could be to look at this sadness as a conflict, as if I was in conflict with myself.

When we have conflicts with other people one way to handle them and get past them is to talk about it – that requires being open, truthful, and as complete as possible, and then it also requires talking about what we want instead. So I took some time to try and work it out, not knowing what would happen. I found a nice, quiet, beautiful place and spent a day there alone thinking, processing, remembering, and writing. I acknowledged that her decision hurt me, that I believed it hurt my brothers and others in our family. I acknowledged that because of it I struggled with self-esteem (some part of me thought that if I had been worthy she would have stuck around). I acknowledged that I had missed out on some fun occasions around the holidays. I acknowledged that I missed out on support that most of us expect from a parent. I listed out some effects I’d seen in all our of lives that I believed stemmed from her death. And after I’d gone through all the negatives I could think of, I took time to imagine a future that was different in a positive way. I admitted that losing her was significant but didn’t have to be defining. I acknowledged that I wanted to be able to celebrate when the rest of the world was celebrating. I accepted that my own worth had nothing to do with her decision. I acknowledged that I, like every other human, am valuable because God, our creator said so. Our worth was so valuable to Him that He went through sending Jesus to live, die, and rise so that we can be reconciled to Him.

So, I was faced with 2 deaths: my mother’s and Jesus’. I had to decide how to reconcile what each of them meant for me. I decided that my mother’s death had everything to do with her and nothing to do with me. Because if had she been able to think clearly and see past her own grief she would not have chosen for 3 children to have to grow up without her. I decided that Jesus’ death had everything to do with me (and all the other people). And so, I decided that both events are real and I get to choose to cling to the defining that comes from Jesus’ death, not from my mother’s death.

All that time writing, thinking, and processing resulted in healing for me. My decision to face the situation and come out on the other side worked. After that I was able to enjoy Christmas. I was able to get excited about shopping for ornaments, about decorating, about giving gifts, about celebrating with friends. I was able to face each day without thinking about the pain that came from my mother’s death.

Each year on the 7th of December I do think of her and the great loss that we’ve experienced because of her decision. Now that I have a daughter I even get a touch angry that she is cheated out of having one of her grandmas to love her. But, I pass on through those feelings to other good ones. Those ones don’t take over anymore. I use the early part of December to bake yummy cookies and share them with friends. Some years I seek out someone who has had a loss in the year and let them know that I recognize their loss and I’m thinking about them. I use this time to prepare Christmas cards; I know I get a smile each time there’s one in my mailbox so I spread that joy to my loved ones.

This year, the 28th anniversary of her death, I am so thankful that I took time to heal! As I see the excitement my daughter experiences searching for the perfect gift to give her uncles, the joy on her face as she decorated our tree, the excitement she has as we bake cookies together for friends, and the happiness she gets from our other small decorations I am filled with joy in knowing that I did my part to heal and I’m passing on joy of the Christmas season to her instead of passing on a sad season. It is so cool to watch her excited about giving gifts and excited about seeing decorations, and if I hadn’t chosen to heal our situation would be totally different. Yay for choosing healing!!!


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