The Holidays. For so much of my life they were surrounded by nothing other than pure joy, excitement, and wonder. I find myself missing those days – the days when Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year season were simply happy. Unforeseen tragedy and the loss of loved ones have since changed my experience of holidays. Rather than easy and blissful times, they are ridden with pain, approached with a sense of tension, and their passing is always met with relief and the idea that I “got through it.”
This new experience has opened my eyes to how many people approach the holidays this way. Perhaps you’ve also experienced the loss of a loved one, have unresolved problems with specific family members, or don’t have anyone you feel welcome to spend the holidays with. For many, holidays can be a painful reminder of our grief, loss, and sense of aloneness. I know that in previous years, I found myself wishing these days simply fell off the calendar and ceased to exist. Yet here they are, again, as they will be next year and the year after that.
Celebrating Joy in the Midst of Pain
As Christians, what is our response? Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Lord, a day that, regardless of my internal experience and external circumstances, I want to be able to fully live and rejoice in. I don’t want the Holiday season to be so painful, yet find that, even as I continue to heal in my grief and move on in other areas of my life, these supposedly “joyful” days time and time again bring me back to the rawness of my losses so deeply it’s as if I’m experiencing them for the first time.
As a mental health counselor, something that I frequently tell my clients is that things that are seemingly opposing can and do coexist simultaneously in the exact same moment—being hurt by someone yet longing for their love and approval, recognizing your blessings yet struggling deeply, or desiring healing yet pushing it away in the same breath. I have come to find, first through my own experience and later through the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, that the same is true of pain and joy. In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis and his wife exchange a dialogue about the nature of pain and joy while they are soaking in the moment of a beautiful landscape. As C.S. Lewis tries to push the pain of his wife’s terminal illness and her inevitable death out of his mind, she challenges him that “the pain then is part of the happiness now.”
Interacting with Emotions
Pain and joy co-exist, not even in succession of one after the other, but at the exact same time. I am a firm believer of living in reality, and if reality is that both exist in the same moment, then the best response is to admit and accept them both. Christmas and every other holiday is a joyful time and I can experience that joy without denying the pain I’m simultaneously holding. I can admit to that pain without “ruining the day” or feeling that I’m backtracking or never going to heal. In other words, I can make space for that pain, which is a part of me. The pain that is made more prominent because of the joy which that special day contains.
As C.S. Lewis and his wife overlook the beauty of the scene before them and she prompts him to discuss the pain he is experiencing, she also gives us direction of how to live our experience of pain. Pain, whether embodied as grief, anger, or aloneness, is the same as every other emotion in that it is interactive. Every emotion communicates something. Pushing it down in an effort to silence it may temporarily work, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s been that very tendency that’s contributed to this fear and disdain I’ve developed for the holiday season over the years.
Don’t Just “Get Through”
In an effort to continue to live my life and rejoice in the birth of Christ and special times with family, I have found that giving that pain a chance to communicate helps make those days an opportunity for healing vs. a day to simply “get through.” My family and I have adopted traditions to honor those who have died and make an effort to share our memories and current experiences of missing them with one another. Tears inevitably follow, but rather than pushed aside, the pain is very much acknowledged and experienced. And what comes with it is joy—both in honoring the life of those lost but also in living that moment together as a family. Pain and joy very much go hand-in-hand with one another, especially during the holidays, so allow them to. The result will be a deeper and more authentic experience of both.