When your high mileage sedan ceases to calmly speed around the corner in the direction you had in mind and decides to attempt a reverse 180, you don’t think about the eventual consequences.
It will take months for you to sort out how a pleasant country drive, progressing with such seeming calm and unhurried grace, could suddenly cram itself into such a brief span of time. Mere seconds are filled with thunder, grinding, squealing and scraping that various car parts make as they obediently curtsy to a couple of Newton’s laws of motion.
All of these events occur so loudly, so publicly and with such hurried finality. Yet as loud as those few seconds seem, they are abruptly followed by a hush that seems even more complete, as though God had unplugged the speakers for this corner of the world.
You escape serious injury. Your first thought is that you will be late for work.
Two days from now, you will be startled by the fact that getting from your easy chair to the bedroom has become a major undertaking. Six months from now, you will be asking yourself why it is still so frightening to drive in the rain.
The illustration of the car wreck allows me to say some profoundly important things to you. These are things that can make all the difference between your being able to cooperate with the healing work your heart needs in a time of mourning and feeling as though you may have unexpectedly become just a little unhinged.
The first thing is this: don’t minimize what has happened to you.
I tried to do that on a sunny summer morning that was my first day in to work after my friend Janet died in January 1986.
After all, she was just a coworker. We carpooled together, shared a few laughs and a few stories about chemotherapy.
On that first day, I drove straight to her apartment, the same one where I had joined the family for a quiet wake after the funeral. And I sat outside her apartment for what seemed an eternity before I realized what I was waiting for. Then I wept until I thought my eyes would swell permanently shut.
Sure, I felt a little crazy. But later I realized that Janet meant more to me than I had ever understood. And that thought helped to heal me. It made me genuinely grateful for our time together.
The second thing is this: do not despise the black-and-blue bruised and swollen condition of your soul right now.
This, dear reader, is the normal condition of a grieving soul. Being in this condition is a sign of healing, not an indication of unredeemable failure.
Thanksgiving and Christmas have been turned into happy-time machines by manufacturers who want you to believe that buying one more of what they are selling will make you happier. They just want you to think that you are supposed to be happy. Even religious folk have a way of telling us that we all ought to be singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” with that angelic smile on our faces.
God loves you cleaned up and happy, or bleary-eyed with tears. God understands your loss and honors your loss more deeply than you can know. Many of us believe that God lost a son and that the loss was real, not fake, and that God’s grief was much like our grief.
If it means hiding in the house away from company, skipping church, taking a day off to cry in bed all day, asking friends to come hold your hand while you talk — whatever it means — then do it. Do it for the sake of this soul of yours that God and your dead loved one loved and (I believe) continue to love with such intensity.
The third thing is this: Make yourself a holiday.
It may mean a miserable little table top evergreen or an empty box wrapped and tied with a bow and a card to the one who is no longer here. That will be OK.
Of course, there a dozen other things you could do. This PBS blog post offers some additional strategies. Many other fine resources are available online.
If you can make room for the three things I have named above, then you should consider yourself to have done your duty to the holidays and, most of all, to yourself. Remember that it will hurt because you dared to love. Remember that you aren’t yourself and you shouldn’t be with your loved one gone. Believe that you can heal, because you have loved someone deeply and courageously.
Next, read these tips for finding your happy place during holiday stress.