. . . almost all survivors experience anniversary reactions. The first Christmas, Easter, birthday, or wedding anniversary after the loss can be difficult emotionally, as can the anniversaries of the death . . . Sometimes when people are not free to mourn immediately after the death, a full grief reaction will be triggered by a later anniversary or other reminder of the loss. (Gary R. Collins, Christian Counseling, 3rd Edition, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007, 474.)
I remembered the first time I drove to Klang after the death of Hee Ling my first wife (1993). I was living in Petaling Jaya then. I used the Federal Highway. When I approached the first toll gate I burst into tears. It hit me that I would never be driving to Klang with Hee Ling ever again. There is something about these “first time without the loved one who died” experiences that really brings home the finally of death and the pain of loss.
Christmas is particularly bad because the many exhortations to rejoice, from the church and from the world (shopping malls), only serve to underline one’s pain. Indeed a phenomena called Christmas depression has long been documented.
This (Christmas holidays) is a period of frenetic activity, a time when people are trying to juggle work, an increase in social obligations, shopping, decorating, wrapping, entertaining and staying on budget. All this leads to a rise in both physical and emotional stress.
This is also a time of reflection, as the year nears its end. A time when others look back and see the losses they incurred — loss of a loved one through death, divorce or separation, loss of a job, or even loss of familiar social environment (as in having moved away from home). (“Christmas Holiday Depression,” Medical News Today, 18 Dec 2005.)
Yet maybe Christmas should best be viewed through tears. Recently I had the privilege to preach from this passage from the gospel of Mark:
While he (Jesus) was still speaking to her, messengers arrived from the home of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. They told him, “Your daughter is dead. There’s no use troubling the Teacher now.”
But Jesus overheard them and said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.”
Then Jesus stopped the crowd and wouldn’t let anyone go with him except Peter, James, and John (the brother of James). When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw much commotion and weeping and wailing. He went inside and asked, “Why all this commotion and weeping? The child isn’t dead; she’s only asleep.”
The crowd laughed at him. But he made them all leave, and he took the girl’s father and mother and his three disciples into the room where the girl was lying. Holding her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means “Little girl, get up!” And the girl, who was twelve years old, immediately stood up and walked around! They were overwhelmed and totally amazed. Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell anyone what had happened, and then he told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5: 35-43 NLT.)
There are few things as tragic as the death of a child. As a parent I can guess what Jairus must have felt when he was told his daughter had already died. I can imagine the scenes of wailing and weeping. There is something universal about the grief of loss. Death is the enemy that cannot be defeated. But what is also clear from this account is Jesus’ absolute authority over death. We see it in His raising of Jairus daughter. We see it in His raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44). And of course we see it in His own death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-28).
If the calls for joy at Christmas only seem to heighten the pain of our grief, we remember that the Christ of Christmas is the One who has conquered death on our behalf and on behalf of all those who are His. For some of us, the wounds of grief are still raw. But every Christmas is one Christmas less till that Day when Christ comes again, and we will be “overwhelmed and totally amazed.” In the meantime the Christ of Christmas calls us to hold on. He tells us “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.”
Are you a friend of someone who has lost a loved one recently? Don’t stay away because you are afraid you don’t know what to do. Don’t rush your friend to premature emotional closure. Don’t trivialise their loss by telling them that everything is ok. It is not. It will be. But not yet. “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5b NLT)” The morning will come. But first the night. Just be with your friend. You don’t have to say anything. Your very presence will be a tangible reminder of Jesus, and the morning. I can’t think of a more meaningful way to celebrate Christmas.