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?

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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.

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