Hope for the Holidays

It struck even earlier this year, the sense of longing for my mother that invariably surfaces somewhere between Halloween and Thanksgiving. She’s been dead 21 years, yet the holidays still stir in me a feeling of loss. This year, it was the result of a medical appointment and the comprehensive family history I had to provide. “Oh, pancreatic cancer–that’s a bad one.” The words never fail to prompt a reaction, and the nearer I am to my mother’s age at her death, the more my sense of loss looks forward as well as back. Will I live to see my children grow?

DSCI0036 copy

I wiped the unexpected tears from my eyes as my husband and I ate a picnic in the parking lot of the medical complex, and then I did what any sorrow-indulging person would do: I played Christmas music the whole way home. I have a healthy holiday collection on my iPhone, and I might have chosen “Joy to the World” or “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” but what I really wanted was a song that matched my mood as I remembered the final season of health and wholeness in which I saw my mom, Christmas. Steven Curtis Chapman songs are ready-made for the occasion with knowing lyrics like these: “While everybody sings their happy Christmas songs tonight, all you want to do is cry.” Cry indeed.

Planning for the holidays is challenging regardless of your circumstances. We toss memories, expectations, and reality into a blender; add a dash of money trouble, a few personality conflicts, and your own secret family ingredient; press “puree” and pray. It’s a powerful recipe for disaster, no?

My husband is naturally patient and kind-hearted, and I expect he’s grown all the more so living with my anticipatory anxiety about how we will spend Thanksgiving and Christmas. We navigate the usual “my traditions/your traditions, my family/your family” questions with the complication that both my parents have died. At least once a year I threaten to abandon the family and spend the time alone at Kripalu or on a deserted island somewhere, and in truly broken-hearted and vulnerable moments I ask why both his parents are alive when I have neither of mine. I’m not proud of the question or asking it of him/God/whoever, but it always comes up. It just does.

There’s hope, though, and I now have many years of practicing the holidays in light of loss. I trust even my all-loving husband would say joy-filled tears now spring to my eyes as often as the ones laced with sadness. This did not happen without intention, effort, and support, and I had to arrive at a place where I leave room for my parents’ absence and celebrate their continuing presence. While their lives–all our lives–are temporal, the values they brought to their living are eternal, and so I acknowledge the holidays by placing these values at the center of our celebration. I give to others, I listen to extraordinary music, I prepare food with care–especially traditional recipes I made with my mom, and, in the example of my father, I preach a message of good news that isn’t afraid of our suffering, a God who is willing to step in with us so that we are not alone.

I have been noticing since starting my coaching practice that all of my clients have experienced or are anticipating a loss–often a person, but sometimes a job or a season in life. Perhaps I notice because this is the lens I bring to my own life. Perhaps it is something about the clients I attract. Regardless, in considering them and the many who seek to live this season with integrity and connection, I decided to offer something special.

“Hope for the Holidays” is a two-session conversation about how those of you living with loss can place your own eternal values (sometimes gifts from your family and sometimes the choices you make in contrast to your family history) at the center of the Thanksgiving/Hanukkah/Christmas season. While my own religious identity, Christianity, means I live my losses through the season of Advent and Christmas, I expect the challenges are similar across religious lines, and I am open to serving people within and beyond my tradition. Details are on the “Coaching Sessions” page, and I invite you to pass this post and the opportunity along to people you care about who would benefit from support in shaping a both/and holiday with room for loss and room for those we miss to show up. It is the perfect gift.

Peace to you as you plan how you will remember in the season ahead. I am with you on the journey.

© 2014 Jennifer L. Sanborn. All Rights Reserved.



This post, drafted a month ago, is a work in progress, as is the unpacking it describes. Perhaps sharing with you will move me nearer to my goal of being unburdened, free. Peace to you as you put down the load you are carrying to open your arms for some new delight.

photo (12)

Inspired by my in-laws’ move this summer, I’ve been peeking into boxes in my basement–boxes moved to shelves in the corner eight years ago and not touched since. Some were labeled (“Jennifer: elementary, high school, awards and accomplishments;” “Jennifer: letters from friends;” and so on), and some were tightly sealed in plastic wrap, our own version of weather-proof archives in a water-prone basement.

On the first day, I opened all the boxes, unearthing my own mini-time capsule. I had report cards from every stage of schooling, certificates of achievement that began when I was a child and traversed all the years to come, musical programs from performances spanning decades in age and ability, and letters, letters, letters. Along with many layers of family memories hidden in each box, I discovered a shift in my need for what was inside.

If I’m honest with you, and I strive to be nothing but, these boxes were not really meant for me. They were indeed a time capsule, packed and put away for my children in the event of my death. I never said this aloud to them or anyone else, but in each of these boxes I had placed the evidence I wanted them to discover. “Oh goodness, our mother was smart–and what a voice she had! All those friends?! I can’t believe the letters she has here, filled with affection and gratitude.”

Our experiences mark and shape us. When I learned my mother was dying, she was sick to the point that she could no longer share the stories that mattered to her. My sister and I were left to forage through old boxes and construct her life from the artifacts that remained. Whether a conscious act or not, I had tried to make my own children’s foraging a little easier, a little more orderly.

So what was I to do with them now that I am less convinced of my impending death–now that I want to live for the present and future rather than the past? As I uncovered the contents of these boxes and my hidden motivation, I was seized with a driving need to let it all go–to get the boxes and all that they contained out of the basement.

The first clean-out stages were simple, and my motivation was high. I scooped fistfuls of letters into a “burn pile,” and after just a moment’s hesitation, I added the report cards, standardized test results, and, yes, every achievement award I had ever been given. I called the kids down to the basement and my sorting piles when there was something particularly poignant or funny to share. Their personal favorite was a childhood diary in which I called my mother, my teacher, and my friend Pam “b*tch,” all on separate dates but with the same amount of vitriol and the absence of an asterisk. When the piles were complete–keep/file (the smallest of the piles), recycle, give away, and burn–I instituted a 24-hour waiting period. Given that I could not possibly read all those old letters or peruse every college paper I had written, I wanted to leave time for the Spirit to compel me back to something, and I wanted to be certain I wasn’t clearing my past on adrenaline alone.

The night of our bonfire was one for the family memory book. We took turns piling pages on a roaring fire, pausing to look at an old yearbook photo or quickly read one last card. I pulled five or so pieces from the pile because I was drawn to them in the moment, and each has its own story since–but most everything went on the fire without hesitation or regret. As the pages burned, I prayed prayers of gratitude for the people, the memories, the accomplishments, the places, and the growing all symbolized in that pile. There were some hurts in those letters too, and, as the night grew dark, we made s’mores over the fire, my home-grown version of turning the bitter into something sweet.

The clearing out since has been more challenging–pictures and memorabilia of my parents, now dead, and their parents, the same. After my initial clearing out and the drafting of this post, I’ll admit I stumbled. I uncovered long-held but rarely-stated family rules: You do not throw away, recycle, or burn the pictures or belongings of people who have died. I’m breaking this rule with what I am doing, of course, and I am remembering how hard it is to shape new rules when generations have lived by the old ones.

When the sorting and the letting go get difficult, I remember our bonfire and the sweet taste of freedom. I remember the tears that flooded my eyes the following week when I turned on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and heard Elizabeth Lesser say, “Our golden, radiant core is enough. This is what people want,” and knew it to be true. I am enough. You are enough. No evidence required.

© 2014 Jennifer L. Sanborn. All Rights Reserved.