Christmas 2013 was our family’s first without our son Matthew. I could barely breathe. I stayed away from the grocery store and the mall, fearing I couldn’t hold it together in either. The Internet became my friend as I shopped late at night, without sentimental mall music stirring up memories of Christmases past—when all three of my children were alive.
But every day, the Christmas cards arrived.
When I opened the first batch of cards, shock washed over me. Photos of beautiful, happy, intact families cascaded onto my kitchen table. Most were accompanied by a greeting wishing me a joyous Christmas. Some had a signature and the message, “Hope you have a great Christmas.” Others included a standard family newsletter, listing the accomplishments, vacations, and delightful family moments that had filled their year. I grew astonished, then angry, as I realized that none of the cards mentioned that our precious Matthew had died violently six months earlier, leaving us definitely not having a joyous Christmas.
Eventually I left the card-opening to Rick. The cards remained unopened in the traditional iron sleigh that has held our cards through the years until after Christmas Day had passed. Weeks later, I tore through them, angry tears pouring down my cheeks as I separated them into three piles: ones that didn’t mention our grief, ones that did so with a short, “Praying for you,” and ones that included soothing, loving, and thoughtful words of compassion and empathy. The third stack was the smallest.
Recently I opened the first Christmas card of this season. I wondered if perhaps I had been oversensitive last December—so immersed in our family’s loss at the time that every expression of happiness was like scraping an open wound. I hoped that I’d feel differently this holiday season. When I opened the card—an artfully designed print on heavy paper stock, printed with a signature from a pastor I don’t even know—I threw it away.
Last week I wrote about this experience on Facebook. I asked readers to consider sending a plain card to grieving families (instead of an obligatory “happy family” photo). “Tell them in a few words that you are aware of how painful Christmas can be and that you are praying for them,” I wrote. “Yes, it’s inconvenient—it will take more time than your rushed signature, and it will require entering into someone else’s loss, mourning, grief, and anger.”
I ended the post on behalf of grieving parents everywhere: “If you aren’t willing to modify your way of sending cards for a while, please do us a favor and take us off your list.” Hundreds of folks resonated with my words and spoke of similar experiences. Others were deeply offended and let me know.
I’m slowly learning that grief is both universal and yet as individual as each person who mourns. Psychologists note that most grief journeys include shock, denial, anger, resignation, and acceptance. But it’s not linear, as though it was a clearly marked path for everyone. The feelings come and go. Some days you think you’re doing well until something triggers a wave of emotions that make you wonder if you’ll feel like yourself again. There are better days, even good days. And then, after a couple good days, a tidal wave of sadness can knock you to the ground.
For me, grief has meant screaming and wailing and weeping and moaning and writhing. Grief is crying so hard that snot runs from my nose into my mouth. Grief is sobbing so hard that I throw up. It’s lying spent on the couch, too weary to lift my limbs up the stairs to bed.