The lights were brighter this year I think. The decorations were more colorful. The streets were lined with garland and signs were posted in store windows counting down the days. I put our lights up outside, helped my wife put the tree up inside, the Christmas music was on, and I was awaiting the inevitable Christmas joy I should have been feeling. Only, I wasn’t feeling joy. I felt pain. I felt guilt. I felt lost. It had been months since I’d lost my son and Christmas was supposed to be the conduit I used to relinquish my guilt, my pain, and my frustrations. It was supposed to allow me to be happy again. Only, it didn’t.
Every year we’re bombarded with the commercialization of the holidays. It’s supposed to be a time spent with family and friends that we don’t often get to see. It’s supposed to be about the joy of giving and receiving to and from others. It’s about celebrating the birth of Christ, whose death on the cross allows us to experience the joy we long for. This is often overtaken by foot long candy bars, giant sock-filled advent calendars, and countless commercials regarding year-end sales we should be attending. But the magic of the season lives in the love you are able to spread unto others, including your family. This is better than anything tangible you could give or receive. A part of the love I was supposed to be able to give was gone. So, the holidays weren’t joyful for me. I could have been given a million dollars and felt just as empty. The holidays felt like a task that was necessary for me to navigate through, something to keep me busy, not a time for me to reflect on what I was thankful for.
The hardest part about the holidays was seeing babies the same age as my son experiencing what he didn’t have the opportunity to experience. It wasn’t their fault and I was truly happy for them. I’ve spoken before about jealousy toward other families regarding what they are able to experience. This jealousy doesn’t stop in the NICU. It haunts me to my very core even today, months removed from the NICU. I don’t want to feel this way, but when I see someone else experience what I wanted, it’s hard not to be. When I see a little boy crack a smile to his mom or dad, that smile simultaneously warms my soul and breaks my heart. When I see that dad in public, pushing around a stroller with a beautiful baby inside, and I look down at my empty hands I feel like I’m in a different place, a different world than I’m supposed to be. My new world doesn’t make sense to me.
I’ve adored Christmas my whole life. My family’s adoration for Christmas rubbed off on me as a child and, as an adult, I’ve always wanted to pass that down to my children. Every year I think about spending time with my family and how fun shopping for others will be and how I’m going to out decorate my neighbors this year. I seldom think about the concept of loss because I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to have experienced very little. That is until now.
The holidays usually meant feeling happy, so what was I supposed to do with this terrible sadness buried in my heart? I couldn’t show it to my family. That would ruin their holiday season and my feelings shouldn’t ruin theirs. That’s an unfair expectation and burden I didn’t want to make them carry. So, I was quiet. I did what I was supposed to do. I showed up. I gave and I received. But then, I went home and continued feeling empty. What was I supposed to do?
If you feel this way because of someone you have lost, know you aren’t alone. It’s actually common to feel down around the holidays when someone should be there with you and they can’t be. The impossible task about moving forward is moving on. No one moves on from a loss. It may get better, sting a little less over time, but you’re never going to forget the times you had or the times you were unable to have. The holidays don’t have to be a time to be thankful or a time to reflect on your relationships. It’s perfectly normal to feel terrible, to feel lost. But destigmatizing feeling terrible isn’t a recognition that it’s okay to continue feeling terribly. When you recognize you are unwell, it’s perfectly okay and encouraged for you to reach out to someone and talk about these feelings. If you aren’t ready to talk to someone physically, reach out to Christ. What better birthday gift could you give Him? By reaching out to Christ and letting Him know you are struggling, you give Him the ability to take your pain away, to show you genuine love, the greatest gift of all.
Ironically, the holidays are a time when those who have experienced loss feel worse than before the holidays. For most, the holidays are a time to be happy. It can be hard to fathom someone feeling unhappy. For the happy ones, remain sensitive to your surroundings. Just because you had a good year doesn’t mean someone else did. This doesn’t mean the holidays have to be a thief of your joy because pure joy is deserved. It simply means that someone acting a little off at the holidays may not necessarily be attributed to “Scrooge”-like behavior. It’s possible that person is thinking about someone they lost, someone who used to bring out their Christmas joy. Be there for them. Show them your love. It may be the best gift they receive.